For years, California police agencies have rejected almost every racial profiling complaint they received
The more time attorney Chris Martin spent in handcuffs on a February night in South L.A. earlier this year, the more it became obvious to him why he was being detained.
Martin — the 32-year-old director of legal services for Black Lives Matter Los Angeles — was driving to a mentoring program when he came upon what he described as a “police perimeter.” He asked if he could go through. Instead, he said, officers asked him to exit his vehicle.
Within minutes, Martin said, he was frisked and handcuffed. The officers said they were looking for a shooting suspect described only as a “Black man in dark clothing.” They offered no further reason for the stop, Martin said.
Eventually, Martin was released. He filed a complaint alleging officers detained him only because he was Black. But he already knew how the investigation would end.
“I still have to file the complaint, even though I know that it’s highly likely to be futile, at least as far as whether or not the department is going to hold itself accountable,” he said. “We know that they won’t.”
Martin’s assumption is almost always right.
Police agencies across the state upheld just 49 racial profiling complaints from 2016 to 2019, less than 2% of the roughly 3,500 allegations filed, a Times analysis of California Department of Justice statistics found.
Of the 250 law enforcement agencies that received at least one racial profiling complaint in that time frame, 92% of them upheld none of them, according to the analysis.
A number of the state’s largest law enforcement agencies, including the Oakland Police Department, the California Highway Patrol and the sheriff’s departments in San Bernardino and San Diego counties, were among the agencies that sustained zero profiling complaints.
The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department sustained two out of 146 complaints in the same time span, according to the analysis. Despite receiving 883 racial profiling complaints during that four-year period, the most in the state, the Los Angeles Police Department upheld only two.
An LAPD spokesman declined to respond to questions about Martin’s case. On that night, Martin said, he refused to speak with the officers and alleged that a detective on scene threatened to arrest him for obstruction of justice, a dubious legal claim the attorney says he laughed off.
Police agencies in California have a long history of rejecting allegations of officer misconduct. A prior Times analysis found that from 2008 to 2017, police throughout the state upheld only 8% of roughly 200,000 allegations of wrongdoing they had received from the public.
The more recent data focusing on bias complaints were mandated under California’s Racial and Identity Profiling Act, which cleared the state Legislature in 2015, though some agencies in large cities had previously produced annual reports on the issue. The analysis in this article focused on profiling complaints based on a person’s race or ethnicity, and excluded those based on gender, sexual orientation or disability.
The data reported to the attorney general’s office provide the most complete statewide portrait of law enforcement’s response to profiling complaints at a time when more and more members of the public are calling for a reimagining of criminal justice and questioning whether policing has a disparate effect on communities of color.
Walter Katz, former independent auditor of the San Jose Police Department, said that despite numerous reports that have highlighted racial bias in police stops and searches, proving an individual contact between an officer and a civilian is racially biased can be extremely challenging. That divide often infuriates those who file complaints, who inevitably see an officer’s version of events validated over their own.
“You know the undercurrent of what is occurring is discriminatory, but being able to prove that is different,” said Katz, who is now vice president of criminal justice policy for Arnold Ventures. “Really, in the absence of a statement by the officer or deputy proving racial animus, proving such complaints is really difficult.”
Many of the agencies with the lowest rates of sustained complaints in the state have previously been the subject of studies highlighting racial disparities in their vehicle stops or other contacts with residents.
This year, a report from the LAPD’s inspector general found Black and Latino drivers were far more likely to be stopped by police than white motorists, though white drivers were more likely to have contraband when searched. A 2016 Stanford University study also found that 60% of the people stopped by Oakland police in a one-year period were Black, even though just 28% of the city’s population was Black at the time.
Although he understands why the numbers might concern some, LeRonne Armstrong, a deputy chief in the Oakland Police Department, said his agency thoroughly reviews each profiling complaint. If an allegation of racial bias is made in the field, he said, a supervisor is immediately dispatched to the scene. Oakland’s Community Police Review Agency also conducts parallel investigations into profiling complaints and concurred with the department’s findings on each of the 251 allegations that investigators rejected from 2016 to 2019, according to Executive Director John Alden.
Armstrong said footage from body-worn cameras often disproves allegations of racial profiling. But he understood why diminished trust between the public and police might put a chasm between what a person believes and what an internal investigation can substantiate.
“It’s so hard sometimes, to prove what people feel,” he said. “Not to say that their feeling is wrong, or what they perceive is completely off base, but it’s just sometimes very challenging when you have investigative standards that you need to reach to hold somebody accountable.”
But asking the public to simply trust the validity of internal investigations can be a hard sell, experts say. California law shields virtually all information about internal affairs allegations from public view, except when the allegation concerns lying, sexual assault or use of force ending in death or serious harm. Those who make racial profiling complaints, however, will receive only a form letter noting that their complaint was upheld or rejected.
Priscilla Ocen, a member of the L.A. County Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission, said that one-way flow of information leaves people who make profiling and misconduct allegations feeling as if they were not heard. Statistics such as those revealed in The Times’ analysis only cement the impression that police will not police themselves, she said.
“This is the problem that we have, where there’s an implicit trust and belief in whatever the officers’ account is,” she said. “The complainants’ account is the one that is being subject to scrutiny. I think that’s really the problem. There’s an inherent power imbalance in these investigations. The deputy’s word is almost always taken at face value.”
Some police agencies scoffed at the suggestion that the data were cause for concern. In a statement, San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Lt. Eddie Bachman said profiling allegations often stem from subjective claims. Although internal reviews may sometime turn up other minor misconduct on the part of the deputy, he said, all rejected complaints simply lack evidence of bias.
“Nothing is unsettling about the fact we have no sustained findings regarding profiling and/or discrimination,” wrote Bachman, an internal affairs supervisor. “I believe in the majority of the alleged ones we have, the complainants do not have a total understanding of the incident.”
Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Lt. John Satterfield argued the way the California Department of Justice tracks statistics oversimplifies the actual results of the agency’s investigations. In many cases, he said, a profiling complaint may not have been sustained, but an internal investigation may have found that the employee’s conduct could have been improved, which is different from an outright dismissal.
The LAPD’s record of rejecting complaints of biased policing — a broader universe of allegations that also includes complaints that officers mistreated people based on factors including gender, ethnicity or age — has prompted aggrieved responses from activists and even some city officials. In a recent report, the LAPD acknowledged it had not upheld any of the 399 such complaints it received in 2019, raising the eyebrows of civilian Police Commissioner Dale Bonner.
“What does that say to you about how well this system is … detecting that kind of misconduct?” Bonner asked during an October meeting of the Police Commission. “Is it really capturing enough reports in the right ways, and how does it have any credibility in terms of potential sanction against biased policing?”
LAPD Chief Michel Moore pushed back, arguing the sheer number of complaints didn’t mean they were all valid.
“When you have 60% of complaints that are proven to be unfounded or demonstrably false, this issue of the pure volume of allegations, I don’t buy that as bias either,” he said.
The actual number of bias complaints the LAPD determined to be unfounded or false was roughly 79%, per the department’s report.
Although the standards for sustaining racial profiling complaints might make it difficult for police agencies to uphold more complaints, Katz said agencies can do more to make residents feel as if their allegations aren’t simply being tossed off. A number of police agencies, including the LAPD, use mediation programs in which an accuser and officers can discuss the conduct in question outside the confines of an internal investigation or disciplinary process.
Otherwise, Katz said, the gap between statistical evidence of systemic bias in policing and the lack of action on individual cases will only continue to harm the public’s trust in law enforcement.
“I think that the evidence is clear and ample research backs this up. There is evidence of racial bias and discriminatory policing,” he said. “The challenge is how does one connect together what is evidence of systemic bias, down to the individual officer level. Two different standards are being applied.”
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