San Jose Police Department’s new plan to track “curb sitting,” which some residents say unfairly targets minorities, will be the first of its kind in the nation, says Independent Police Auditor LaDoris Cordell.
“No police department in the United States is doing this,” she says of the policy that rolls out in July. “But often police will stop someone and it ends up as nothing. If there are arrests, police make a report. But if someone’s stopped and let go, there’s no report. That’s what we’re going to change.”
Cordell has long urged the department to document curb-sitting incidents to note the reason someone was stopped, their ethnicity, name, age and other data to determine whether certain groups are targeted.
“There’s a perception that people are singled out,” says Cordell, a retired judge. “But we don’t have the data to find out what’s going on out there. Because anecdotally, I hear, especially from people of color, that they’re treated a certain way.”
Former Police Chief Chris Moore implemented the policy back in January before he retired. But Acting Chief Esquivel suspended it until he could iron out some kinks in the program, like making sure the software was in place to take those reports.
“We want to find out what they make people do, why they stop them,” Cordell explains. “There’s got to be a reason. They have to write why. If they say, ‘because I felt threatened,’ they have to explain.”
There was some pushback from the ranks, Cordell says. People told Esquivel the extra work would be cumbersome. Some officers called Cordell’s advisory back in January the “don’t get out of your car memo.” If cops, already frustrated by understaffing and higher workloads, felt they had to gather all the data, there was an attitude that they might as well avoid contacting people if they thought it could elevate into a detention.
“Some people said, ‘well, we might as well not get out of the car,’” Cordell says. “But in my mind, this is police work … this is something they should be doing anyway. I’m trying to show them that this also protects them.”
If someone complains that an officer treated them unfairly, say months after an incident, the police could defend their actions by citing the report filed, Cordell says. Otherwise, with no proof, an officer could end up with a “non-sustained” finding in their personnel records, an indicator that there’s no way to tell who’s right.
“It’s significant to communities of color … feel like they’re being targeted,” she says. “We don’t know if it’s true or not, but it’s a perception. So doing this is a way of building better relationship and trust … we will document the things that we do.”
Meanwhile, citizen-filed detention allegations have been declining. Maybe part of it is because a smaller staff after years of layoffs has led to a decline in the overall number of pedestrian and traffic stops, Esquivel’s memo notes, from 436,855 in 2008 to 309,168 in 2012. Of the 3,625 citizen complaints filed in 2012, only two included comments about curb-sitting.
As San Jose readies to implement the new approach, others have taken notice. A sociologist called to testify in a lawsuit against New York City’s controversial stop-and-frisk tactics has reached out to Cordell, asking to talk about the curb-sitting data-tracking.
Cordell says she believes other departments around the country will watch San Jose as it starts data-tracking curb-sitting. A lot of agencies have avoided it because their officers see it as a burden, she says.
“I think that’s probably an attitude that’s in a lot of departments around the country,” she says.
It won’t matter soon enough, though, if the department opts to outfit officers with surveillance cameras, as Cordell has advised.
“Then you won’t have to even take notes,” she says. “It’s all on camera.”