San Jose police more likely to use force against blacks, Latinos

Rodney Foo and Sean Webby| San Jose Mercury News| Link to Article

San Jose police are more likely to use force against blacks and Latinos than against criminal suspects from other ethnic groups, a new department study shows.

Overall, the first-of-a-kind report says less than 5 percent of the 34,000 arrests last year involved officers using some kind of force – a definition that includes the use of hands and feet, pepper spray, batons, Tasers and guns. Among the findings: Hands and feet were used most frequently against criminal suspects, firearms least often.

But while the overall numbers weren’t surprising, the statistics on arrested minorities drew sharp questions from civil rights groups, the independent police auditor and criminal justice experts. And Police Chief Rob Davis said the numbers deserve further study, although he added that they demonstrate how infrequently his department uses force.

According to the report, 10 percent of those arrested were African-American, but 17 percent of those subjected to force were African-American. Latinos were also subjected to force at a rate slightly above average.

In contrast, 19 percent of those arrested were white, but 18 percent of those subjected to some kind of force were white. The use-of-force numbers against Asian groups were also relatively low.

The higher use-of-force statistics against blacks suggest two possibilities, said James Alan Fox, professor of criminal justice at Northeastern University at Boston.

“Either there is something about the behavior of the arrestee that legitimately promotes the use of force, or because of race, officers are more apt to use force,” he said. “I can’t answer that question, obviously.”

`Matter of concern’

Barbara Attard, San Jose’s independent police auditor, said she was not sure how to interpret the numbers. She wondered how many times police are using force without following the department’s strict procedures. That number was not addressed in the report, and San Jose police have regularly refused to release the individual incident data necessary to make such a judgment.

Attard said that about 16 percent of the complaints her office had received against police officers came from African-Americans.

“That, coupled with allegations that people are being profiled and allegations that people are being treated disrespectfully, make me think these numbers are a matter of concern,” Attard said. “I think they need to be taken seriously.”

The report instantly provided fuel for longstanding criticisms of the department from the Latino and black communities.

“This isn’t socioeconomics, this is an out-of-control police department,” said Rick Callender, head of the San Jose branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, who has accused San Jose police of racial profiling.

Victor Garza, chairman of La Raza Roundtable – a civil rights organization, said the numbers “give me grave concern.”

“I’m not sure if they are targeting Latinos,” Garza said. “But we have to talk to the chief to see if we can reduce that number.”

Chief Davis said most of the numbers jibed with the ethnic breakdown of arrests – showing that officers were not unfairly focusing their force on any ethnic group.

“Simply because more of the people are of a certain race does not mean we are targeting them,” said Davis. “The PD is colorblind. The only thing police target is criminal activity.”

Davis said he had no explanation of why the arrest rate of the African-Americans last year was lower than the rate that force was used against them, but agreed that it raises legitimate questions.

“It’s certainly worth looking at,” Davis said.

Initial report

The police report is the first time in recent history that the department has released a statistical portrait of its officers’ use of guns, batons, pepper spray and Tasers on suspects. When they began using Tasers departmentwide in 2004, police promised an annual report on their use, but it has now been nearly two years since they have released such statistics.

Davis vowed the department will now release a “use of force” report annually.

Analyzing such statistics can be tricky.

Fox said it is meaningless to compare arrest percentage by race to citywide population because officers only deal with a particular strata of society: suspected lawbreakers. In San Jose, 62 percent of those arrested are black or Latino, while those groups make up 34 percent of the population.

Moreover, as Davis pointed out, many of the suspects San Jose police deal with live in other cities.

Like Fox, Franklin E. Zimring, a law professor at the University of California-Berkeley’s Boalt Hall School of Law, said he found the statistics involving Latinos appear to be within norms, but the numbers involving use-of-force against blacks require deeper study.

“What you have is a potential indicator or a differential risk that can’t be explained easily or naturally by the concentration of arrests,” Zimring said.

He suggested the calls for police service have to be analyzed by race to determine if indeed officers dealt with a disproportionate number of violent or serious crimes involving African-Americans, a factor that could have driven use-of-force responses higher.

“You’re looking for potential conflict-generating situations,” Zimring said.

The report comes in the midst of an ongoing battle between the police department and those who want more information from it. The ACLU has been trying for months to get the department to release raw data on its Taser usage, and the city’s Sunshine Task Force is discussing whether the police should be required to make more information about many aspects of their work publicly available.

Sanjeev Bery, director of the San Jose branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, said he was also troubled by what the report didn’t address.

He said, for example, he wanted to know if certain officers had used force more than others, a breakdown of where the officers were using force.

He also said the report lacked data comparing uses of force over several years – making it almost impossible to say if patterns are changing.

“This report highlights our concern that the SJPD are not being open with the public,” Bery said.

According to the report, officers used physical force in 71 percent of their encounters with uncooperative suspects. Batons accounted for 12 percent; Tasers, 10 percent; and pepper spray, 6 percent. Tasers – the department’s most controversial weapon – were used 232 times in 2006. And police used deadly force – guns – four times.

“People get this idea that cops want to mix it up with people; it’s not true,” said Davis. “These are human beings who want to go home to their families like anybody else.”