Being Black means you’re more likely to be stopped, searched by Long Beach police, new data shows

Long Beach police stop a disproportionately large number of Black drivers and subject them to greater scrutiny than their White and Latino counterparts, according to a Long Beach Post analysis of a landmark trove of data.

Despite making up only about 13% of Long Beach’s population, Black motorists, pedestrians and bicyclists made up 24% of the LBPD’s traffic stops in 2019.

During those stops, Long Beach police ordered or physically pulled Black drivers from their vehicles more than twice as frequently as White drivers, and officers were more likely to search Black detainees than either Whites or Latinos.

Those searches, however, yielded fewer results. Only 11% of searches involving Black detainees turned up drugs, weapons or other contraband compared to 19% for Whites and 17% for Latinos.

The data, which provides an unprecedented amount of detail about interactions between Long Beach police and the public, comes at a tense moment. Since a Minneapolis police officer was charged with murdering George Floyd, a Black man, who lost consciousness and died as the officer knelt on his neck, dozens of demonstrations have taken place in Long Beach alone over the past month. Thousands have filled the streets calling for police to be defunded, reformed or abolished.

Although the data highlights disparate treatment of Black residents and raises serious questions about whom Long Beach police decide to pull over, it is not proof of racial profiling, experts caution.

The statistics come with caveats, including the fact that population data is an imperfect benchmark for comparison because census surveys tend to undercount people of color and don’t account for nonresidents who may be driving on city streets. The information is also reliant on officers’ perception of a person’s race, and it’s impossible to know exactly what an officer is thinking when he or she initiates a stop.

But the numbers give advocates and academics statistical evidence of something they’ve said for years.

“The data confirms what we have long known, that Black folks are policed at higher rates than people of other ethnicities, especially White folks,” said Eva Bitrán, a staff attorney with the ACLU.

It also lays bare the reality that simply driving while Black is often treated as a suspicious act, said Christine Petit, executive director of Long Beach Forward, which advocates for racial and economic justice locally.

“The unjust overpolicing of Black motorists is one of the many ways Black people are criminalized in our community,” she said.

Long Beach City Councilman Al Austin called the data eye-popping, but said, “As a Black man, it doesn’t surprise me.

“This shows that there’s a lot of room—a lot of room—for improvement in terms of understanding implicit bias,” he said.

Both Austin and Councilman Rex Richardson, who spearheaded a series of listening sessions in response to civil unrest over Floyd’s death, said the data must result in meaningful changes.

“I expect the city to find actual ways to address this,” Richardson said.

LBPD Assistant Chief Wally Hebeish said in an interview Monday the data caught the department’s attention and reaffirmed its commitment to reform.

“We’re on board,” he said. “We want to get better. We want to evolve. We want to further become a department that’s reflective of the community.”

The department, he said, has been striving in recent years to build trust with communities that have felt overrun by police, who saw pouring more officers into a community as a means to drive down crime.

In recent years, the assistant chief said, the LBPD has ramped up implicit-bias training and started to rethink how officers are deployed.

But Hebeish and the Long Beach Police Officers Association, which represents rank-and-file officers, agreed the data needs more context before drawing firm conclusions.

“Let me be clear, we do not stand for racial profiling, as it is unconstitutional and illegal,” Association President Rich Chambers said in a statement. “We do not condone bias nor targeting of a person based on race, ethnicity, creed, sexual orientation, disability or social status.”

Labeling the city’s police force “as biased based upon unanalyzed raw data is wrong,” he said.

Mayor Robert Garcia could not be reached for comment Monday evening.

The data

The Long Beach Post analyzed data for this story that includes more than 40,000 people stopped by Long Beach police last year.

How we reported the story: Landmark data release sheds new light on LBPD stops

Under the rules set by California’s Racial and Identity Profiling Act, the LBPD in 2019 had to start tracking what they perceived to be the race, gender, age, LGBTQ+ status, English fluency and any disability for every person they detained.

They were also required to document what officers did during the encounter and how the situation ended—whether it be a citation, warning, arrest or other outcome.

In Long Beach, the majority of police interactions with citizens—over 26,000—were during traffic stops.

The most common reason officers stopped drivers, speeding, was roughly proportionate to Long Beach’s population even though Black drivers were still slightly overrepresented, making up 18.5% of the 5,384 times drivers were pulled over.

But the disparity only grew for less dangerous violations like registration and license plate violations—the second and third most common reasons for traffic stops.

Long Beach police, for example, pulled over 3.5 times as many Black drivers than White drivers for displaying their license plates incorrectly.

Long Beach is not alone in these racial inequities. Data from California’s eight largest police agencies showed Black people accounted for 15% of all stops they made, even though Black residents make up only 6% of the population.

The disparities didn’t end there. During traffic stops, LBPD officers searched Black persons or their vehicles 11% of the time, compared to 9% of Latinos and less than 5% of Whites.

Black motorists were removed from their vehicles in more than 8% of traffic stops compared to 7.3% of Latinos and 3.5% of Whites.

“Absent another persuasive explanation that I cannot think of right now, this to me quite clearly shows racial profiling and racial bias in policing in this agency,” Bitrán, of the ACLU, said.

In years past, LBPD’s union was one of the loudest local voices denouncing the idea that racial profiling exists.

“There is no racial profiling. There just isn’t. There is criminal profiling that exists,” then President Steve James said as the Racial and Identity Profiling Act (RIPA) was signed into law in 2015.

James called RIPA “a terrible piece of legislation,” telling the LA Times that it would burden officers with extra work to help solve a nonexistent problem.

The union has softened that stance.

Chambers, the current president, said his members are not opposed to the collection of stop data, “but it must be comprehensive and tell the whole story.”

The decision to stop someone is complex, he said, and comes with many factors that may not be represented in raw statistics.

Other larger police agencies in California have offered similar caveats when presented with racially disparate stops by officers. The state’s eight largest agencies began reporting RIPA data they collected to the state DOJ last year.

More and more agencies will slowly have to provide that data under a rolling deadline set by the law.

Long Beach’s first annual RIPA report was due in April. By law, the data is public record; however, it was not publicly available until the Long Beach Post submitted a records request to the DOJ and LBPD on June 6. Three days after providing the data to the Post, the LBPD posted it on the department’s website.

Long Beach police said they’re still analyzing the raw information but provided it publicly “as part of the City’s commitment to transparency.”

“If I’ve gleaned anything from it,” Hebeish, the assistant chief, said, “it is that we need to continue looking at our police department and rethinking how we police our neighborhoods and rethinking how we prepare our officers to go into this line of work and ensure they are able to meet the expectations that the community has for us and still keep everybody safe.”

For others, as thousands of protesters spill onto the streets, rethinking how police do their jobs is no longer enough.

“The realities that these data reinforce illustrate why community members are calling on our city to defund the Long Beach Police Department,” Petit, of Long Beach Forward, said. “and redirect resources to meet Long Beach’s most pressing needs, including jobs and opportunities for economic security, support for young people and families, and public health.”

Managing Editor Melissa Evans contributed to this report.

For more information about how we reported this story, click here.

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Jeremiah Dobruck is the breaking news editor for the Long Beach Post. He began his journalism career in 2007 as an intern at Palos Verdes Peninsula News and has worked for The Forum Newsgroup in New York City, the Daily Pilot and the Press-Telegram. He lives in Torrance with his wife, Lindsey, and their two young children.
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