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San Diego Police Chief Wants Recording Devices to Help Reduce Racial Profiling

San Diego Police Chief William Lansdowne said the small cameras can be worn on uniforms and record both video and audio.

Patch file photo. Credit: Michelle Mowad
Patch file photo. Credit: Michelle Mowad

San Diego police Chief William Lansdowne made a pitch Wednesday for the City Council to authorize the purchase of cameras that record the interaction of officers and the public in order to reduce incidents of racial profiling.

At a meeting of the council's Public Safety and Livable Neighborhoods Committee, Lansdowne said the small cameras can be worn on uniforms and record both video and audio.

"The police officers are very committed to it," Lansdowne said. "They're excited about the cameras. They think that they serve a purpose both for the community and for the officers themselves."

He recommended the purchase of 100 of the devices, with a price tag of $165,000 to $200,000 to use in a test phase. Eventually, the SDPD will need around 900 of the cameras -- and managing the devices will cost about $2 million annually, he said.

Many of the nearly 30 members of the public who spoke at the meeting outlined their experiences of being pulled over by officers and immediately questioned about their probation status, gang connections and tattoos.

Lei-Chala Wilson, president of the San Diego branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, referred to a recent squabble in New York over a controversial "stop-and-frisk" policy when she spoke.

"We don't have a 'stop-and-frisk' problem -- we have an 'are you on probation or parole' problem," Wilson said.

While top SDPD officials conceded that data shows Latinos and blacks are stopped more frequently than Asians and whites, they denied a systematic pattern of bias in vehicle stops or searches.

Councilwoman Myrtle Cole, who asked for the item to be placed on the meeting agenda, said the discussion was the beginning "of open and honest dialogue." Cole called for regular town hall meetings in her district of Southeast San Diego -- which has a predominantly minority population.

"As you can see today, the comments and the stories, they're proof that there's a problem," Cole said. "There's a problem and we have to address it."

Lansdowne said SDPD officials would attend the town hall meetings and would work with residents and community organizations to build trust.

He said the cameras would resolve the inconsistent collection of racial data during the nearly 100,000 traffic stops that take place annually around the city. Filling out the information is "labor intensive," he said.

According to a recent report by VoiceofSanDiego.org, San Diego officers stopped jotting down the data until Lansdowne ordered a resumption in October. Most big city departments record racial information during traffic stops.

The website reported that data collection increased after the chief took action.

Lansdowne told KPBS last week that the system needs to be rebuilt "almost from scratch." Civil rights and neighborhood advocacy groups are helping to develop a new plan, he said.

—City News Service

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