‘It is actually happening’: Black people, including youth, stopped most by police in California

Black people, including youth, have the highest rate of being stopped, searched, detained, handcuffed and removed from a vehicle in California.

SACRAMENTO COUNTY, Calif. — It’s a nationwide problem — racial disparities in policing persist year after year and, California is not immune.

According to a report released earlier this year by the California Racial and Identity Profiling Advisory (RIPA) Board, Black people are disproportionately stopped by the police in California. 

The most commonly reported reason for a stop was a traffic violation. But Black people had the highest proportion of their stops reported as ‘reasonable suspicion that the individual was engaged in criminal activity.’

The Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) is a non profit on a mission to improve public policy in the state through research. PPIC uses data from RIPA to help identify racial disparities in policing practices. PPIC explains some of the inefficiencies in policing, like how stops of Black people more often lead to no enforcement.

“Traffic stops are driving a lot of the disparities,” said Deepak Premkumar, research fellow with PPIC. “Black people are overrepresented in stops not leading to enforcement. That means, not even a warning was issued. This, especially, is true when a stop is more intrusive. For example, a person being asked to step out of the vehicle, being put in the back of a patrol car, or handcuffed.”

Last Tuesday, Sacramento police pulled over a nine-months pregnant mother at gunpoint with her 8-year-old son in the car. It happened on the Capital City Freeway. Shanice Stewart tells ABC10 she was driving her son to football practice  when the unimaginable happened.

“I rolled down all my windows, and then I just proceeded to listen to instructions,” said Stewart. “I did instruct my son just ‘stay here, keep your seatbelt on, don’t say anything.’ That’s when I looked in my rearview mirror, and I saw that they had guns pointed towards the car. That’s when I started to get nervous, breakdown. I got scared.”

The Sacramento Police Department said officers mistook the child for a wanted suspect. 

“We must acknowledge that a case of mistaken identity occurred, our officers provided explanation and an apology to the mother and her son,” said a spokesperson for the department. “Our department has been in contact with the mother since the incident. We recognize the impact that police interactions can have on our community members.”

Earlier this year, the Sacramento conducted an audit of the Sacramento Police Department regarding misconduct complaints, mostly stemming from traffic stops. The audit found that police handcuffed a 10-year-old Black girl in her pajamas last year. The audit goes on to explain that “the child was not a threat to officers and was only crying.” 

Police Chief Kathy Lester responded to the audit during a city council meeting in June. 

“We do agree on some very fundamental aspects of this report. We agree that our department can and must do better to meet our standards with every stop and encounter and we agree that there are evolving best practices in law enforcement and we must continually seek to adopt these,” she said.

Additional data from the RIPA report shows Black people, including youth, have the highest rate of being searched, detained, handcuffed and removed from a vehicle in California. They are more likely to have force used against them, too. 

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Children and adolescents can face the same treatment as adults during police encounters. They may be detained, searched, handcuffed, pepper sprayed, tased and even shot. The RIPA report also shows that 15 to 17-year-old Black youth are searched at nearly six times the rate of white youth. The board goes on to explain that Black children are perceived as less innocent than children of other racial identities. The disparity begins as early as age 10.

Darrin Bell, who lives in South Sacramento, is a Pulitzer-winning editorial cartoonist. He wrote a book titled “The Talk,” a memoir that highlights how “the talk” with his mother at a young age shaped his life, from childhood to adulthood. 

“The only way to solve it is to talk about it and to realize that it is actually happening,” said Bell. “The talk is the conversation that parents of Black children have to have with them at too early of an age to prepare them for a world that sees them differently than their white friends.”

In the book, Darrin opens up about his experience being profiled by the police in Los Angeles at 6 years old. He says he was playing outside with a bright green toy water gun.

“I bent down to refill the water gun in a puddle, explained Bell. “That’s when I heard somebody say ‘drop the weapon.’ I looked up and it was a police officer. My first thought was he is playing with me. But then I saw him reach for his gun. I was frozen. I was completely frozen. Eventually, he left.” 

Darrin’s message to law enforcement is “all children, whether they look like you or not, are precious.”

When it comes to finding solutions to disparities in policing, former Sacramento police chief Daniel Hahn says it takes the police and community working together. Outside of police accountability, he adds the need to address the American system, overall, to help spark change.

“How do we make law enforcement, the law enforcement that we need? We must stop the division,” Hahn said. “The division does not work. Definitely, law enforcement is by no means innocent and has played their fair share in it. But major systems, like law enforcement and the criminal justice system, are so intertwined with the rest of society that you cannot just think that you can only address law enforcement and expect the issues to go away.”

Catalyst California is a non profit on a mission to advocate for racial justice by building power and transforming public systems. Catalyst California, along with the ACLU of Southern California, released a report in 2022 called “Reimagining Community Safety In California.” 

The report uses 2019 data from the RIPA to reveal the “prevalence of racially-biased patrol activities, particularly traffic stops, by sheriff’s departments in Los Angeles, Riverside, Sacramento and San Diego Counties.”

One of the key findings in the report highlights stops by the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department. It shows Black people were over 4 times more likely to be subjected to a stop for a traffic violation than white people. The report also explains that “among officer-initiated stops for traffic violations, approximately 75% of hours are spent on stops that result in a warning or no action.”

“Outdated ‘tough-on-crime’ approaches not only fail to advance safety, but also disproportionately harm communities of color,” said Chauncee Smith, senior manager of Reimagine Justice & Safety at Catalyst California. “Rather than wasting billions of public dollars on unproductive patrol activities, policymakers must rethink ‘public safety’ and ensure that our collective welfare is truly rooted in the public, community members, especially those of highest need, rather than law enforcement.”

Catalyst California makes several recommendations to address disparities in policing, like “reallocating public spending from law enforcement and punishment to care-and community centered harm reduction strategies.” That includes increasing support for community organizations that provide violence intervention services, behavioral health support, homeless outreach, youth development, jobs, and housing.

“Our policymakers must show leadership when it comes to traffic safety by ensuring an end to racial profiling and police violence, said Smith. “We must recast our approach and no longer rely on law enforcement agencies as our primary and sole solutions to keeping communities safe.”

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