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Guest Commentary: San Diego police must ban pretext stops and consent searches

It’s time for spring break and tens of thousands of visitors are headed to Mission and Pacific Beaches. Unfortunately Black, Indigenous, and other people of color (BIPOC) who drive here are more likely to be pulled over and searched in pretext stops and consent searches than white people.

It’s a stunning example of over-policing that has, until recently, gone without notice. Pretext stops happen when an officer suspects criminal activity and pulls a driver over without probable cause. A minor traffic violation (not signaling, not coming to a complete stop, a broken tail-light, etc.) gives police the pretext to investigate someone.

Consent searches happen when a driver’s verbal consent is the only basis provided and give officers more discretion than a warrant.

According to the 2020 Campaign Zero report, Evaluating Policing in San Diego, from 2018 to 2019 San Diego Police stopped Black people at 219% higher rate per population than white people. Once stopped, Black people were also 25% more likely to be searched and 59% more likely to have force used against them, according to the report.

The Black stop rate in Pacific Beach is 4.4 times higher than the Black stop rate in the Morena district, which is used as the median in the report. What’s truly stunning is the Mission Beach Black stop rate which is 322 times higher than the median. In Mission Beach, where 3,617 people live, 3,914 total stops occurred from 2018 to 2019. In Pacific Beach, where 48,467 people live, 11,736 people in total were stopped during that time.

Pacific Beach is second to East Village (13,698 total stops) with Midway District coming in third (6,846 total stops). PB has far more stops overall than most neighborhoods in San Diego.

The Campaign Zero report found three-quarters of all police searches resulted in no contraband being found. When found, contraband tended to have no impact on public safety. Fewer than 1% of searches reported finding a gun.

“Those contraband numbers are the story right there,” said Dante Pride, a partner at Pride Law Firm, who visits Pacific Beach to surf. “Police are more successful pulling over white drivers to find contraband yet they don’t pull them over at a higher rate.”

The terms “pretext stop” and “consent search” recently entered the racial equity spotlight thanks to the Coalition for Police Accountability and Transparency (CPAT). The coalition, composed of Alliance San Diego, the San Diego ACLU, the Center on Policy Initiatives, Pillars of the Community, and the San Diego LBGT Community Center, has introduced a new ordinance called PrOTECT: Protecting Over Policing Through Equitable Community Treatment.

“PrOTECT will require probable cause for searches and stops,” said Chelsey Birgisdottir, a policy associate at the ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties, during the March San Diego City Council meeting. “This will help end the San Diego Police Department’s practice of consent searches and pretext stops, which SDPD’s own data shows the department uses disproportionately against Black and brown people.”

“If you’re a Black male driving in San Diego and you see a police officer, your first assumption is that you’re going to get pulled over,” said Pride, who is Black. “And I do get pulled over, often, for little violations. They’ll say ‘oh, you didn’t fully stop’ and that’s not something you should ever argue about at the scene.”

His advice for anyone, but especially BIPOC, who are pulled over: Comply.

“Comply and document,” said Pride. “Don’t agree to searches. Don’t talk to them about your day.”

Eric Busboom, a data analyst for social and civic causes, said larger populations on weekends and holidays can cause pretext stops to spike, especially by Belmont Park and Garnet Avenue.

“Violent and interpersonal crimes are more strongly correlated with population density than almost any other factor,” said Busboom, adding that age and gender also factor into crime statistics.

Young men across all races are more likely to be charged with crimes, and that demographic flocks to entertainment districts on spring and summer nights, he said.

“North PB, where I live, is one of the safest places on the planet,” Busboom said. “But if you go by SD police reports it’s the most dangerous because it includes Garnet. Most crime incidents in San Diego are associated with entertainment districts.”

BIPOC in San Diego don’t need statistics to know there’s a problem, Pride said.

“Most people in San Diego have this belief: We’re not Los Angeles. We’re not a big bad city. It’s nice and lovely,” he said. “These people need to see these statistics and see the disproportionate numbers to understand it’s not always ‘nice and lovely’ when you’re Black or from a lower socioeconomic background. Each stop becomes a statistic but for the humans involved it’s a complete mental and emotional attack on your senses.”

There are three ways neighbors can help stop over-policing in Mission and Pacific beaches:

— Learn more at CPAT’s Town Hall on Biased Policing on March 30 at 6 p.m. Register at bit.ly/CPATtownhall

—Offer public or written testimony on April 13 during San Diego City Council’s special meeting on policing: https://www.sandiego.gov/city-clerk/agenda-comment-form

— Email District 2 council representative Dr. Jen Campbell and demand that SDPD ban consent searches and pretext stops: jennifercampbell@sandiego.gov

Regina Sinsky-Crosby is a resident of District 2.


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