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Police in L.A. and across California disproportionately cite Black people for minor infractions, study finds

Lights on top of police cruisers
A study examining court filings, police data and other records found that police in major cities across California cite Black residents for infractions such as loitering, drinking in public and sleeping on the street at disproportionately high rates.
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Police in Los Angeles and other major cities across California issue citations to Black residents for minor infractions such as loitering, drinking in public and sleeping on the street at far higher rates than white residents, according to a new study by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area.

In L.A., Black residents — who represent less than 10% of the city’s population and about 38% of its homeless population — were 3.8 times more likely than white residents to be cited for a non-traffic infraction, receiving 30% of all citations issued by the Los Angeles Police Department between 2017 and 2019, the study found.

Black people received 63% of citations issued by the LAPD for loitering while standing, 33% of citations for loitering while sitting or sleeping, 27% of citations for drinking or being intoxicated in public, 32% of citations for having an open bottle and 29% of citations for refusing to take down a tent, the study found.

In some cities, Latinos are also disproportionately cited, the study found. In L.A. — where Latinos represent nearly half the population — they were found to be slightly more likely to be cited than white residents.

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The LAPD did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

The study examined court filings, police data and other records from jurisdictions and agencies across California, including the 15 largest police departments, and found more than 250,000 non-traffic infraction citations in 2019 alone.

The report relied in part on jurisdictions responding to public records requests — more than 80 of which were filed — and some did not provide data. The LAPD data do not include administrative citations issued under Los Angeles’ Administrative Citation Enforcement program, which also targets homeless people for “nuisance abatement and quality of life offenses.”

Still, the Lawyers’ Committee said the study represents one of the most comprehensive statewide reviews of low-level citations ever conducted — and “shows a pattern of enforcement of petty laws against California’s Black, Latinx and unhoused residents” that “would not be politically tenable if it targeted wealthy white Californians.”

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Such citations have long been used by police departments in the United States to clear corners and streets of people deemed undesirable — including homeless people and those suspected of being involved in crime — and defended by elected officials as necessary tools for police to uphold order.

However, civil liberties advocates and other activists have denounced such citations and the laws they are based on as unconstitutional and ineffective enforcement tools that have perpetuated structural racism in law enforcement for decades.

The new study concluded that, in California, such citations — based on an array of local statutes — are used as a tool for penalizing poverty and applied in “racist and classist” ways, said Tifanei Ressl-Moyer, an attorney and civil rights fellow at the Lawyers’ Committee.

Such citations saddle unhoused and other low-income people with hundreds of dollars in fines per citation and can lead to warrants for their arrests when those fines aren’t paid — as they often aren’t.

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People can land in jail for the smallest infractions, at times for simply being outside in public spaces, the study found. Often, those people are Black.

“This report shows that even where laws appear to be neutral in composition, they are disparately enforced against Black and Latinx people, and they have tremendous consequences,” Ressl-Moyer said. “We believe cities and counties in California should stop enforcing them all together.”

To conduct its study, the Lawyers’ Committee filed public records requests with police agencies across the state and looked at data that jurisdictions must disclose under the state’s Racial and Identity Profiling Act. Beyond L.A., disparities were noted in Los Angeles County, San Diego, San Francisco, Sacramento, San Jose, Oakland, Long Beach and elsewhere.

Khalid Samarrae, an attorney who consulted the Lawyers’ Committee in researching and writing the report, said the enforcement and adjudication of such citations consumes billions of taxpayer dollars a year in California — money that could otherwise be put into support services to help people get off the street instead of saddling them with fines.

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Some cities, including L.A., have halted enforcement of certain infractions during the COVID-19 pandemic, citing public health concerns around displacing homeless people. However, as cities continue to grapple with pandemic-related budget shortfalls and policymakers “reimagine” public safety amid calls for the defunding of police, they should consider why they are putting money into citing low-level street infractions in ways that exacerbate the problem they are meant to address, Samarrae said.

“This is not just a police thing,” he said. “We need comprehensive healthcare. We need housing. We need education. All of those things are also necessary to deal with these issues.”


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