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California police use force at a higher rate against blacks, data shows

A police officer in uniform.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
A police officer in uniform.

Police in California shot at or used force against black people last year at triple the rate relative to their portion of the population, according to a first ever report on use of force released Thursday afternoon by the state Department of Justice.

According to the report, law enforcement agencies reported officers shot at or otherwise seriously injured 782 people across the state in 2016. In dozens of these incidents, officers perceived the people as armed when no weapon was found. More than half of the people were unarmed, the data show.

The statistics begin to fill in the information void that has enveloped police uses of force in California and the rest of the nation, where it is often difficult to garner basic facts.

Until now, no statewide agency has collected numbers on police use of force or the frequency of unarmed people being killed by law enforcement.

"We had nothing," said Assemblymember Freddie Rodriguez (D-Pomona), author of the 2015 bill requiring police shooting data collection on which the report is based. "Now, we have data to look back on what's happening on the street."

Advocates said the data was disheartening, but not surprising. "We know that black people have been bearing the brunt of use of force," said Mark-Anthony Johnson with Dignity and Power Now, an L.A.-based organization calling for greater oversight of law enforcement.  "I think we’ve seen evidence that change needs to happen."

Some in law enforcement said hard data will help them better police their communities.

"We need to look into the causal factors," said Edward Medrano, Gardena Police Chief and president of the California Police Chiefs Association, which supported the data collection.

Medrano said it’s a priority among law enforcement leaders to eliminate injuries to community members - and officers.

"I think all of this is helpful to increase the dialog with our communities to help law enforcement evolve," he said. "How and where can we begin that dialog to heal some of the divides in our state and our country?"

Law enforcement agencies were required to collect data on uses of force resulting in serious injury or death beginning in 2016. The state justice department published a 63-page report with some tables and charts, but it has not yet released raw data, which could reveal hot spots for use of force and shootings.

Among the findings in the report:

  • More than half of the uses of force were in Southern California, a five-county area that accounts for just under half the state's population
  • Nearly half of incidents began with a call for service
  • About 20 percent of officers were injured during use of force incidents and another 6 officers died
  • About 65 percent of civilians were injured and another 19 percent died 

As California's use of force data collection took shape, a state official told KPCC that the station's 2015 investigative series "Officer Involved" provided a blueprint.

KPCC built a detailed database of police shootings over five years by piecing together information from thousands of pages of district attorney records in Los Angeles County. This year, KPCC added hundreds more shootings from San Bernardino County.

The racial breakdown in the use of force report mirrors KPCC's reporting, which found black people were shot at higher rates in both counties than their percentage in the population. 

KPCC's investigations showed that no officer in Los Angeles or San Bernardino Counties was prosecuted for any of the hundreds of shootings reviewed by prosecutors in the past decade.

Rodriguez’s data collection bill encountered no opposition and passed both houses unanimously in 2015. The law required police agencies to begin collecting data last year. 

This year, a California legislator tried to go further and put forth a bill to establish an independent state team to investigate police shootings, which are now investigated by other officers or deputies, including those from the same department. Law enforcement groups opposed the bill. It was watered down to a “study” in committee.

Despite the new reporting law, many of the details of police shootings are likely to remain secret because state law allows law enforcement agencies to withhold evidence regarding shootings from public scrutiny and can shield officer discipline from the public.

The report notes that while all agencies were required to share data with the state, some nevertheless failed to do so. Dozens of agencies, including campus police, reported no significant uses of force incidents last year.