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Internally, OPD has long been plagued by racial biases within its department with data consistently showing that police stop and search people of color at disproportionately high rates; Black residents made up 57 percent of 2014 police stops, even though they constitute only 27 percent of the city's population. OPD, which is under federal oversight due to its history of racially biased policing, has been working to combat its biases through ongoing training and research efforts. But experts note that police departments are more limited in their ability to eliminate profiling when it comes to citizens' calls. In other words, when residents engage in racial profiling, police generally have to investigate, which creates yet another pathway for people of color to face unjustified contacts with police — beyond the racially biased stops and searches cops are already doing on their own.
"If they are just looking around furtively or they look out of place, that's not a valid basis of suspicion," said Jack Glaser, UC Berkeley public policy professor and expert on racial profiling. "If you call the police on them, it puts the police in this bind. It forces the police to deprive them of their constitutional rights."
Figueroa, OPD assistant chief, said the department is working to eliminate racially biased policing at all levels, not just in stops and searches. That includes ensuring that a citizen's questionable report of suspicious activity does not lead to an unwarranted and biased police response. But he acknowledged that when people opt to call police on anyone they deem suspicious, it can put a person of color on a path into the criminal justice system, which is plagued by many biases.
After citizens call police, for example, dispatchers who have to translate that information and pass it along to officers may be influenced by their own unconscious biases, Figueroa explained. Then, the officers "apply their own judgments as to what they're hearing, how to react, and how they're going to approach the call," he said. Even if a subsequent stop is, at that point, legally based on "probable cause," the officers' biases can influence what steps they take during the stop, he said. "There are so many layers involved in this. ... I am focused on trying to determine where implicit bias enters the process, then how can we control for that at each step."
But as long as profiling by neighbors and police continues, the damage remains severe — for all residents. Glaser noted that when police spend time profiling innocent people, they are diverting resources away from those who are actually engaged in criminal activity. Profiling also breeds deep mistrust in law enforcement, which in turn makes it much harder for police to work with communities of color and investigate and solve crimes.
For those who are profiled, the psychological and emotional suffering can have lasting effects. It can make people afraid to leave their own house and walk to the grocery store at night or make them cautious about spending time in certain public places. And the harsh reality for some is that they aren't even safe from profiling in their own homes.
Shikira Porter said a white man recently stared her down while she was in the driveway of her Upper Dimond house one morning, getting ready to take her son to school. "Finally, I said to him, 'Yeah, I live here,'" she said. And two white women, she added, recently questioned her when she pulled over and briefly parked her car a few blocks from her home to answer a call on her cell from her son's school. When these incidents happen, it can feel difficult to resume normal activities. "You're supposed to go into your day and show up to work and not be angry," she said. "It's all these ways people of color have to try to hold it together."
Leland Thompson, the Glenview resident, told me that white women have darted across the street to avoid him on his own block. He said that when that happened recently, he became so angry and frustrated that he was visibly shaking by the time he got home.
Vanessa Graham, who is Black and has lived in Rockridge for two decades, told me that about eight years ago, someone called OPD on her sons while they were home alone in their backyard after school one afternoon. The boys, then in sixth and eighth grades, came face-to-face with an OPD officer who showed up to their yard and demanded that the boys prove that they belonged there, she said. "'How do I know you really live here?'" the cop told her sons, she recalled. When the family's Labrador retriever started aggressively barking at the officer, he said something to the effect of, "'If you don't get that animal under control, I will shoot it,'" she said.
Graham still thinks about the incident to this day — especially when she sees people raising suspicions about young Black boys in her Nextdoor group. She wonders what would've happened if the officer had fired at their dog. The question that really haunts her is, "What if he had missed?"
- Bert Johnson
- After a private security guard shot a Black teenage burglarly suspect in their neighborhood, Mitsu Fisher and Ann Nomura decided not to let their kids walk alone in the Upper Dimond anymore.
For Ann Nomura and Mitsu Fisher, it's not worth the risk to have their kids out in their neighborhood alone. "This looks like a good neighborhood until you get on the internet and see some of this craziness," Mitsu said. Ann added: "I have no assurance that police would not grab my kid for no good reason."