A New Report Card for California’s Police Fails Most Departments

The Los Angeles Police Department ranked near the bottom.

The Los Angeles Police Department ranked near the bottom. Reed Saxon/Shutterstock


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The scorecard reviewed data from California’s hundred largest cities to find statewide trends on where police departments are struggling.

With file cabinets full of unsolved murders, hundreds of open civilian complaints about officers using force, and arrest reports that skew more towards misdemeanors than violent crimes, most police departments failed on metrics measured by a new evaluation by a criminal justice advocacy group.

The newly released “Police Scorecard” is a ranking of California’s hundred largest cities on their police use of force, both lethal and nonlethal, their accountability to public complaints, and the amount of time spent on low-level arrests compared to investigations of violent crime.

The report, created by Campaign Zero, an organization focused on improving police accountability, measured individual departments, but also pulled trends for all of California. Statewide data revealed that 70% of arrests were for misdemeanor offenses, and police made 1.8 times the amount of arrests for drug possession than they did all types of violent crime. The report also found that 49% of people killed or seriously injured by police were unarmed, and that California departments have much looser rules for when officers can use force than the rest of the country. When civilians make use of force complaints, they stand about a 13% chance of being upheld.

Sam Sinyangwe, one of the data scientists who created the scorecard, said that California is uniquely well-suited for this type of project because of legislation that requires data collection from police departments and the state’s Open Justice Portal, a central repository of criminal justice data. “Now we have the data to begin evaluating police in a way that hasn’t really been done before,” he said. “We’re not only identifying what types of policies work, but also holding police accountable for their actions.”

The scores are varied, but Sinyangwe said that a key takeaway is the failing grade assigned to 60% of police departments. “The state of policing in California in general not very good,” he said. “But some places are genuinely trying to do better, and it shows.”

The top score, and the only A, went to Carlsbad, a coastal community north of San Diego that received a 90%, partially due to the fact that it was one of 15 cities with no instances of deadly force during the study’s timeframe from 2013-2017. Three B’s went to Mountain View, Garden Grove, and Alameda, followed by five C’s, and thirteen D’s. The remaining 88 cities received an F, with the worst grade going to Beverly Hills.

Stockton ranked eighty-eighth, with a 37%. The metrics that dragged the city’s score down the most were 152 unsolved homicides between 2013-2017, meaning they had solved fewer cases than 92% of other departments, and their use of less-lethal force, mainly strangleholds, which they deployed more than any other department in the state.

City officials in recent years have acknowledged problems with police using force, and Sinyangwe said efforts to improve may not be reflected in the data yet. Both before and after the 2016 election of Mayor Michael Tubbs, the city changed how it handles community complaints, implemented mental health training for officers, and hosted a series of “reconciliation sessions” meant to build trust between residents and law enforcement.

Joseph Silva, the public information officer for the Stockton Police Department, said that the city is now working with the National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice and has created a Community Advisory Board, “all with the goal of seeking community input on our policies and practices.”

If a community lacks trust in the police, a bevy of problems awaits, Sinyangwe said. As an example, he pointed to the finding that in areas with higher rates of violent crimes, the police were actually less likely to solve homicides. “When there is no trust in law enforcement in those communities, it makes it much harder for the police to investigate crimes,” he said.

In addition to reviewing data on the police, Sinyangwe’s team also reviewed police manuals from all the departments. “We found that almost everyone has the same use of force policy, created by a company called Lexipol,” he said. But in the four departments that created additional policies that require de-escalation—Stockton, Sacramento, San Francisco, and Los Angeles—all saw fewer police shootings the next year.

California recently passed a bill aimed at limiting officer’s use of force to “only when necessary” when there are no other options. The measure was originally opposed by law enforcement groups like the California Police Chiefs Association, but they changed their position to neutral before it passed.

Sinyangwe said while statewide initiatives are good, individual police departments need to investigate which issues are most urgent for their city. There is a high degree of variance even between places that have similar demographics—for example, the highest-scoring location, Carlsbad, and the lowest-scoring, Beverly Hills. Both places have nearly the exact same median income, percentage of people below the poverty line, and racial make-up. “So what’s wrong in Beverly Hills?” Sinyangwe asked. “Why has Carlsbad cleared 100% of their homicides, and had no police shootings in a decade? How do we scale what they’re doing across the state?”

A spokeswoman for the Beverly Hills Police Department declined to comment because she had not read the report.

Advocates for police said the scorecard was an unfair assessment. Ed Obayashi, a use-of-force advisor for the California Association of Police Training Officers, told the Los Angeles Times that the scorecard’s use of civilian complaint completion is an unfair metric. “I’ve always had an issue with the idea that just because the complaint wasn’t sustained, ‘Oh, there’s a cover-up,’” he said. “I’ve never experienced it on that kind of scale. As you know, many times it’s he said, she said, and typically the tie goes to the officer.”

But Sinyangwe said that doesn’t explain the whole picture. “The civilian complaints indicator was evaluated relative to other police departments. So some departments manage to uphold a significant portion of their complaints,” he said, pointing to Mountain View, which upheld 38% of their civilian complaints, and Carlsbad, which upheld 58%. “But then you have places like L.A., where there were 951 complaints of police discrimination, and not a single one was upheld. 951 people didn’t lie,” he said.

“In those cases, we’re talking about police departments who have functionally zero accountability,” Sinyangwe continued. “I think it speaks volumes that some people in law enforcement think that outcome is justifiable under any circumstance.”

But Robert Weisburg, the co-director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center, said that he understands uncertainty about complaint completion numbers. “This is notoriously difficult research to do,” he said. “Complaints are often subject to a host of local factors which probably can’t even be measured, so I’m not sure how informative analysis of that can be.”

Still, Weisburg said that other metrics are undeniable. “When you see really, really large discrepancies, which is not a scientific term, but where the difference in the use of force between one jurisdiction and the next is three or four to one, it really tells you that they should look at what they’re doing,” he said. “It’s highly unlikely that even a perfect statistical model would take away a difference of that significance.”

Even though there has been pushback, Sinyangwe said that he hopes police and elected officials will review the data for their jurisdictions and see where they have room to make improvements. “For example, some places are making good progress on the use of deadly force, but not as much on the use of less-lethal force,” he said. “I hope that everyone takes a look at what the contributing factors are to these ratings, so they can understand what policies and practices need to change.”

California soon won’t be alone with their grades. Sinyangwe said that the group is submitting public record requests, following new legislation that would mandate police data reporting in other states, and expanding to include sheriff’s departments. “We intend to evaluate every police department in the country.”

Emma Coleman is the assistant editor for Route Fifty. 

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