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Santa Monica Police Chief Responds to Residents’ Racial Profiling Complaints

Santa Monica Real Estate Company, Roque and Mark

Pacific Park, Santa Monica Pier

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Kutcher & Kozal, LLP

By Hector Gonzalez
Staff Writer

June 1, 2015 -- In response to recent complaints of racial profiling, Santa Monica Police Department  administrators have met with residents, drilled patrol cops on anti-bias rules and are compiling “contextualized” arrest data that will be made available to the public next year, said Chief Jacqueline Seabrooks.

Seabrooks, who met recently with local NAACP leaders and residents, outlined for City Council members last week steps her department has taken to address community concerns stemming from the alleged rough arrest in April of an African-American man at Virginia Park, as well as other allegations.

“We listened. We listened to their perspective,” Seabrooks said of meeting last month with Santa Monica NAACP Branch President Darrell Goode, other civil rights advocates and residents.

“We agreed that we would continue to share information,” she said. “The Police Department will continue to listen.”

During public comments, Goode said he’s concerned officers may have singled out 36-year-old Justin Palmer for arrest during the April 21 incident at a charging station at Virginia Park. Palmer’s arrest, along with another incident in which an officer allegedly used a racial slur over the radio, “catches our attention, as you can imagine,” said Goode.

Palmer, a Santa Monica resident, has filed a claim against the City, a prerequisite to a lawsuit, claiming officers used excessive force causing injury, but his attorney, Justin Sanders, told a local television station he doesn’t believe the arrest was racially motivated.

Seabrooks said many of the concerns raised at the meeting “were not that specific,” including one resident who complained about officers “mad-dogging” citizens.

“That’s very difficult to quantify,” she said. “There’s a legitimate reason why police officers observe and watch and look at people, because we’re trying to make discerning decisions about whether or not to engage in enforcement action, to engage in a consensual encounter, or to match individuals who may be similar in description to information either coming in or provided at some point in time.”

“Nevertheless, we heard the concerns,” said Seabrooks, adding that Patrol Capt. Wendell Shirley is following up on residents’ comments.

“Capt. Shirley has already started discussions with our patrol personnel to ensure that the concerns of the community in that regard are heard,” said Seabrooks.

Seabrooks said she also shared information with residents about past complaints of racial profiling her department has investigated.

“I wish I could say that it does not happen ever,” she said. “There have been allegations brought forth even in the three years that I’ve been the police chief here, and we looked at those, thoroughly investigated them and, where warranted, took the appropriate action.”

Goode urged Council members to support AB 953, which would require police departments to collect  data on “all traffic, public transportation and pedestrian stops” and report the information to the state Attorney General’s Office at least once every quarter, according to the bill’s language.

In cases where a charge of racial profiling is sustained against an officer, the officer would be required to take anti-bias training for up to two years, the bill proposes. It also would create a state Racial and Identity Profiling Advisory Board.

But Seabrooks said she and others in law enforcement have issues with some of the bill’s wording.

“The language of the bill asks for data to be collected that’s very subjective, and in some areas starts to tread into areas that are protected and that the Police Department has no business inquiring about.”

Providing residents with “the type of data they’re looking to have collected” will require buying “instruments” officers can use while out in the field, said Seabrooks.

A budget item setting aside $100,000 for "capture devices," however, is far too little to supply every patrol officer, the chief said.

She said her department already routinely collects and stores data on arrests, but officials for the first time recently started analyzing the information to put it into context.

“One of the challenges with the police data that is already out there is it is not contextualized,” Seabrooks said. “It’s really just data, and it doesn’t say a whole lot. It’s not translated into anything that is meaningful to the average person who might seek to access that information to gain insights about police contacts, arrests, cultural makeup of those individuals, etc.”

Seabrooks said she and her staff are working on a document “that takes a look at that data and contextualizes it.”

“It will be the first foray into this area, not just a one-time circumstance,” said Seabrooks, adding that the data would be updated regularly on the department’s website.

“We want to make sure that the information is put out there, it’s kept current, but also that it’s made meaningful,” she said.

She cautioned, though, that the data will include information on total arrests, not just of residents.

“We have to be mindful that with 7.9 million visitors annually, our data is going to reflect that total population, not just the bedroom population of 92,000,” said Seabrooks. “We have to be cautious about interpreting that.”

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