Police Use Force On Black Angelenos At Dramatically Higher Rates, Data Shows
Police in Los Angeles County and across California use force on Black people far out of their proportion of the population, according to a KPCC/LAist analysis of state Department of Justice data over a four-year period.
In Los Angeles County, 27% of the 688 people police shot or seriously injured were Black. That's more than triple the share of Black Angelenos in the population.
Melina Abdullah, co-founder of Black Lives Matter Los Angeles, said the numbers expose a painful reality: "The conversation in Black communities has always been that Black people have been the targets of police use of force — of the over-criminalization, of brutality, and of killings at the hands of police."
The data tells a similar story statewide: Black Californians were 18% of those shot or seriously injured, but make up just 6% of the state's population.
At nearly half of L.A. County's population, Latinos are somewhat overrepresented among those on the receiving end of police uses of force. Officers used force significantly less often on whites and Asians, compared to their shares of the population.
The data also represents a broader look at police violence. While a small number of use-of-force cases make headlines, most draw little, if any, media scrutiny.
The data analyzed by LAist covers 2016 through 2019 and is not limited to any single department. Since 2016, law enforcement agencies in the state have been required to report shootings and many uses of force to the California Department of Justice — an effort dubbed "URSUS."
The uses of force include gunshots, physical blows, rubber bullets and control holds. The injuries reflected in the data are not mere scrapes or bruises, but represent "substantial risk of death, unconsciousness, protracted and obvious disfigurement, or protracted loss or impairment of the function of a bodily member or organ," according to the state.
The uses of force on Black people in L.A. County look different: Physical force, including kicks and punches, is the most common.
A 2016 study found that Black and Latino suspects received more force in the early stages of interactions with police; for white suspects, interactions escalated into use of force later. In Minneapolis, where George Floyd was killed by an officer who pressed a knee into his neck for nearly nine minutes, police use force against Blacks at dramatically higher rates compared to whites.
"You're very used to there being increased physical contact, and that that contact is much more brutal," said Abdullah. She supports reducing contacts between police and Black Angelenos, and shifting police budgets to social workers and mental health providers.
'FORCE NEVER LOOKS GOOD'
Oftentimes, the URSUS data shows, the people involved of all races were impaired or mentally ill. Many resisted arrest, or were armed with a gun, knife or other weapon. Officers are sometimes injured, and in a small number of encounters, killed.
Officers "have to use some level of force to overcome the force that's being generated against them," said Eric Nuñez, president of the California Police Chiefs Association and the Chief of Police in the Orange County city of Los Alamitos. "No matter how you look at that, force never looks good."
Nuñez said that the racial disparities in uses of force mirror those seen in arrest data, and that reforms outside of policing are needed to address them. "Underneath, there's something that we have to really unmask," he said.
In June, the California Police Chiefs Association published a statement saying, "Our country suffers from a history of racism, and although peace officers are not the root cause of this, we are also not immune from the impacts."
In California, the officers using force look different than the people on the receiving end: Just 1 in 20 officers using force was Black, and over a third were white. More than half of the 1,977 officers using force were Latino.
The rates are roughly in line with the demographics of the county's two largest agencies. The LAPD and L.A. County Sheriff's Department are roughly half Latino, and a third white, according to state data.
Southern California's police forces have become dramatically more diverse in recent decades. "That's a valuable goal, but I don't expect it to have any meaningful impact on use of force rates," said Justin Nix, a criminologist at the University of Nebraska Omaha.
Explaining the patterns in the data is a difficult issue for researchers like Nix. Bias by police in traffic stops, or by 911 callers in reporting suspicious persons, shapes who interacts with police to begin with. "You're starting with data that are already touched by bias," Nix told LAist.
Yet there's no disputing the disparities.
The stark racial divide seen in L.A. County's data is not new or unique:
- A KPCC investigation in 2015 found that law enforcement officers fatally shot Black people at triple the rate of whites and Latinos
- The racial disparity in police shootings in the Bay Area is remarkably similar
- Black Californians make up a disproportionate share of traffic stops. 17% of Blacks stopped are searched; just 3% of Asians and 6% of Whites are, state data shows
"The racial disparities are a natural outcome of this entire system that we've created," said civil rights attorney Connie Rice. (Rice is an Honorary Life Trustee of the SCPR board.)
She said that the "warrior mindset" is still active at the LAPD, the department that pioneered militarized policing in America. In 2016, the union representing rank-and-file LAPD officers called an award honoring police who de-escalate a "terrible idea." "That's all you need to know," Rice said.
The problems go beyond policing — to deep, structural inequalities that harm the health, education, housing and wealth of Black people.
"L.A. is a first-world, third-world city. We're not taking care of third-world L.A. — and that's what government is supposed to do," Rice said. "Our priorities are just skewed. The system is designed to serve the wealthy."
ORIGINS OF URSUS
California's use-of-force tracking system was born in 2015, after the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., ignited fierce debates about policing and exposed the absence of reliable data on police shootings.
"There was no data, nothing was being reported at the time," said Pomona Assemblymember Freddie Rodriguez. He wrote the bill that required California law enforcement agencies to report uses of force each year. It attracted wide support, including from police groups and the ACLU, and passed unanimously in the statehouse.
The state Department of Justice used KPCC's database as a blueprint in setting up the system. URSUS is named after the bear on California's state flag.
Rodriguez, whose son is a Los Angeles County Sheriff's deputy, said he hoped the data would lead to a richer understanding of uses of force and improved trainings for police.
URSUS's data collection began in 2016, and the system has logged data on 2,839 incidents in its first three years, from the shooting of a suspect in Redding to the stabbing of an officer in San Diego.
Overall, the shooting and uses of force have involved 2,990 "civilians" and 6,616 officers. The URSUS data does not show the identity of the officers, making it impossible to identify officers or deputies using force repeatedly.
It also does not include detailed location data. An analysis of ZIP codes by LAist shows dramatically higher numbers of uses of force in areas with more Black residents.
Attorney General Xavier Becerra publishes a report on the previous year's URSUS data each July, though Rodriguez said he hasn't seen much interest in the data from journalists, activists or academics.
"Maybe not enough folks are aware of this data," he told LAist.
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