A statewide database intended to bring greater transparency to police use of force shows that Long Beach officers killed or seriously hurt individuals at a significantly higher rate than police in most of California’s largest cities.

Over the past four years, LBPD officers killed 13 people and severely injured 56, according to the database, which tracks the worst wounds inflicted by law enforcement.

That total is more than twice as high as Fresno and Sacramento, cities roughly the same size as Long Beach. When calculated per-capita, Long Beach’s numbers are almost triple the LAPD’s and more than five times as high as San Francisco police.

Although police reform advocates say those numbers are troubling, LBPD officials argue that the statistical comparisons are unfair because some departments do not report injuries as broadly as Long Beach.

Originally hailed as a long-overdue move toward police accountability, the database run by the state Department of Justice has, in fact, become a source of behind-the-scenes confusion, with law enforcement agencies asking for greater clarity about what should be reported and lawmakers considering whether there needs to be a legislative fix.

Still, despite the numbers’ limitations, they provide the only comprehensive statewide measure of how often California’s law enforcement officers use force that’s potentially life-altering.

They show that, among the dozen biggest cities in California, only Bakersfield and Riverside police killed or seriously injured people at a higher rate than the LBPD. Looking solely at fatal police encounters in the biggest cities, only Anaheim police killed civilians at a higher rate than officers in Long Beach.

“My initial reaction is this is really shocking and demands some serious additional investigation, both from within the police department and the city but also from without, in terms of community organizations and researchers,” said Mohammad Tajsar, an ACLU attorney who has worked on excessive force lawsuits against Long Beach police officers.

Who’s being hurt?

The numbers, law enforcement experts caution, don’t tell the whole story.

Among other things, they say, the statistics do not provide context to analyze officer actions that led to serious bodily injury in each department. Local crime rates, for instance, also could skew the numbers, they say.

What’s more, police say it’s important to note that officers rarely use any force. Long Beach reports doing so in less than 2% of all arrests.

“The amount of contacts that our officers have with the public every day, whether it’s a call for service or an officer-initiated response, those are 99% of the time handled without the use of any force,” LBPD Assistant Chief Wally Hebeish said. “And I think that really says a lot about the way they are approaching those calls and the practices in place and how officers are interacting with the public.”

In recent years, the LBPD says it’s revamped its use-of-force policies to emphasize deescalation and a reverence for life.

Amid that reexamination, the number of times officers use force—along with the frequency of police shootings—has steadily declined since 2016, even as the department has paid out larger amounts of money in excessive force and misconduct lawsuits.

Source: Long Beach Police Department.

But the state Department of Justice database raises questions about that trend. In Long Beach, incidents with potential to cause the worst injuries have remained steadily higher than in other departments and, in fact, rose in 2019.

Overall, the numbers were small—with 18 serious injuries and two deaths last year—but the wounds were significant, ranging from gunshots and broken bones to large cuts and head injuries.

Most of the 69 people seriously injured or killed by Long Beach police over the last four years were allegedly physically resisting or assaulting officers, according to the data. Eleven, however, were not. They were either fleeing, not resisting or simply disobeying officers commands. Five of them were armed; six were not, according to the data.

The numbers also show that, throughout the state, Black people are being seriously injured during police encounters at much higher rates than their representation in the population.

In Long Beach, 38% of the most serious uses of police force were against Black people, despite the fact that they make up only about 13% of the city’s population. Statewide, where Black residents comprise about 6.5% of the population, they accounted for 18% of all people seriously hurt or killed by law enforcement, according to the database.

Police critics, like Stanford Law School’s Suzanne Luban, say those statistics demonstrate the racial disparities across the justice system that have been a focus of the recent nationwide protests.

“I don’t think that most officers are out there saying, ‘I think I’m going to pull over that Black person because I’m racist and I want to hassle them,’ ” she said. But police agencies must find ways to fight hidden biases that lead officers and others to associate skin color with criminality, she said.

“All White people have been socialized in this culture,” Luban said.

To report or not to report

Before the creation of the California Department of Justice database, there was no statewide system for tracking how often police severely injured or killed people.

At the time, the nation was still processing the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and grappling with a lack of centralized statistics to inform policymakers and reformers.

That lack of information prompted Assemblyman Freddie Rodriguez, D-Pomona, to author a bill in 2014 that would eventually lead to the statewide tracking system, dubbed Ursus, a nod in Latin to the California grizzly bear.

The idea won backing from the ACLU as well as from police groups before being signed into law and earning praise for then–Attorney General Kamala Harris when the database launched in 2016.

Under the law, all California law enforcement agencies must submit to the state every police shooting, fatal encounter or injury that “involves a substantial risk of death, unconsciousness, protracted and obvious disfigurement, or protracted loss or impairment of the function of a bodily member or organ.”

But police say that definition of “serious bodily injury” has left plenty of room for subjectivity. Several departments believe that they’ve reported types of incidents that others have not included in their state filings, thus undermining the value of departmental comparisons. Despite their requests for guidance about what to report, the Attorney General’s office reportedly gave them little help.

“They would always say, ‘Well if you think you should include it, include it,’” according to Anaheim Police Sgt. Shane Carringer.

That has prompted Long Beach and other police departments to argue that they’ve become victims of their own diligent reporting.

“I know for a fact we gave them stuff that I felt did not fit what they were asking for,” said Carringer. He pointed to the example of a man he said died from a medical emergency while being handcuffed by Anaheim police even though officers hadn’t used any force to take him into custody.

Privately, some officials have cast doubt on the accuracy of filings by some larger departments, including Oakland, which report almost no incidents of serious injuries.

“Right now it’s almost like we’re comparing apples to oranges because it’s each agency deciding how they’re going to report one segment of uses of force to the Department of Justice,” said Hebeish, the LBPD assistant chief.

A spokesperson for the Attorney General’s office said reporting decisions are left up to local police departments because they “are best-positioned to determine how to categorize use-of-force data entries involving their officers.”

After the Long Beach Post started asking about LBPD’s Ursus numbers, the city sent a letter to the Attorney General’s office, complaining that “agencies across the State are not reporting uses of force consistently.”

For its own purposes, Long Beach police have crafted a very specific definition of serious injury, in some cases, down to the number of stitches a suspect receives. Ten or more, they report it to the state. Nine or under, they don’t.

In its letter, Long Beach asked for a clear definition of the state standard for reporting an incident, saying, “the Long Beach Police Department reports injuries such as broken digits or noses under ‘protracted loss or impairment of the function of a bodily member,’ where it is our understanding that most other agencies do not. There also appears to be a discrepancy between agencies regarding the quantity of stitches, sutures, or staples reported as ‘serious bodily injury.’”

A case in point: Sacramento police told the Post they don’t explicitly include broken bones in their definition—making it unclear if they department reports those incidents.

On the other hand, definitions used by Fresno and San Francisco track more closely with those of Long Beach. They include fractures, concussions, and “extensive” suturing or stitches—although they don’t define what qualifies as extensive, nor do they include all head injuries, like Long Beach.

Other departments contacted by the Post said they either use similar definitions, rely entirely on the definition in the law or attempt to work with the Justice Department on outlier cases.

(A number of departments, including Oakland, San Diego and Los Angeles, did not respond to Post questions or public records requests.)

Rodriguez, the bill’s author, conceded there is confusion over exactly which incidents departments should be reporting to the state. He said his staff is talking with the Attorney General’s office to see whether the law should be clarified or amended.

In the meantime, he said, this lack of clarity shouldn’t prevent departments from continuing to report their numbers with public transparency and accountability foremost in mind.

“Don’t use this as an excuse,” he said. “We want to still see what’s going on with them because right now data’s really important, right? Especially in the climate that we’re in.”

Stranglehold injuries set LBPD apart

Beyond issues of uneven reporting among police agencies, there might be another explanation for Long Beach’s comparatively high rate of serious civilian injuries: its frequent use of a controversial stranglehold.

Until earlier this year, the LBPD was among a dwindling number of departments that still used the carotid control hold, which cuts off blood flow to an individual’s brain by putting pressure on the neck. It is intended to briefly induce unconsciousness in someone who is resisting arrest and, according to the LBPD, allows officers to avoid more damaging tactics, like using a baton or gun.

The state requires that departments report every time a suspect is rendered unconscious—a requirement that has boosted LBPD’s numbers in the database.

Long Beach reported using the hold to subdue or otherwise cause injury more than any other large police department in the state—31 times between 2016 and 2019.

Riverside police were next on the list with 24. The 10 other largest departments reported only 13 carotid holds that resulted in serious injury.

Long Beach suspended use of the carotid hold after George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer who’d kneeled on his neck, sparking an intense nationwide backlash against any kind of neck restraint.

Unlike the LBPD, most California departments by then had already stopped using the carotid hold, according to the California Police Chiefs Association, which recently surveyed its members about pending legislation to ban the tactic.

“Departments that continue to use that technique and indeed potentially overuse that technique are, again, real outliers and should be scrutinized as such,” said Tajsar, the ACLU attorney, saying such tactics “should be relics of the past.”

Long Beach police said they have no plans to bring back the move.

Jeremiah Dobruck is managing editor of the Long Beach Post. Reach him at [email protected] or @jeremiahdobruck on Twitter.