Crime & Justice

Cops in LA, San Bernardino counties top California police shootings list

A police officer in uniform.
A police officer in uniform.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC

New data released by the California Department of Justice shows significant differences in the rates of police shootings across the state.

A KPCC analysis of the data, which cover only 2016, shows San Bernardino and Los Angeles counties have the highest rates among the most populous counties. Police gunfire struck people in 8 incidents per million residents.

Officers in other counties with a million or more people — including San Diego and Contra Costa, Alameda and Santa Clara in the Bay Area — shot people at lower rates, according to the state data. Fresno County, with a population of slightly less than a million, had a higher rate than anywhere in greater Los Angeles, with about 10 shootings per million residents.

All told, police and deputies reported nearly 250 incidents across California in which they hit a suspect last year. Agencies in Ventura County, an area of 850,000 people, reported just one police shooting last year, giving the county the fewest officer shootings per capita of any county in the state.

The statistics were released after a 2015 state law required agencies to report the shootings — and detail their circumstances — in response to an outcry about a lack of transparency. Officials have said the specific data collected was based in part on KPCC's Officer Involved investigation, which tallied local shootings and tracked the circumstances around the shootings, including whether suspects were armed and the race of those killed.

County 2016 Shootings Population Rate per million
San Bernardino County 18 2,135,724 8.4
Los Angeles County 83 10,182,961 8.2
Sacramento County 11 1,496,619 7.3
Riverside County 16 2,348,213 6.8
Orange County 15 3,172,152 4.7
San Diego County 13 3,286,717 4.0
Contra Costa County 4 1,126,824 3.5
Alameda County 4 1,629,233 2.5
Santa Clara County 3 1,922,619 1.6

Source: California Department of Justice and California Department of Finance; only on-duty shootings in which a civilian was injured shown

In the new state data, agencies reported that four out of five people shot were armed, but only half of them with guns. Uses of force, including shootings, were disproportionately directed at black Californians.

About half of the Southern California incidents began with a 911 or other call for service and  multiple police officers were often present when the guns went off.

Aili Malm, professor of criminal justice at Cal State Long Beach, said the variance in shooting rates is likely a reflection of several factors — ranging from a county's violent crime rate to the specific actions of individual officers.

"You could get hotspots of violent crime, where the officer comes into the neighborhood with a higher expectation that it could be a dangerous situation," Malm said. "And the research shows you're more likely to have an OIS in that setting."

U.C. Berkeley's Frank Zimring said that law enforcement leaders play a critical role, and have the tools to reduce police shootings.

"It's a management issue, and a training issue, and an administrative consequence issue," he said.

Both Malm and Zimring cautioned that one year of data has a limited ability to show patterns or trends. California's data collection will continue.

For Donovan Caver, a Black Lives Matter activist in the Inland Empire, the elevated rate of police shootings in San Bernardino County did not come as a surprise. He said the numbers are problematic.

"As much training as [police] have told us they've had, it hasn't resolved the issue. We've seen unarmed people shot, we've seen innocent people shot," Caver told KPCC.

The California State Sheriff's Association was unable to provide comment prior to publication.

Among large law enforcement agencies in California, the San Bernardino police stood out for the high rate of shootings last year. During a brutal year for homicides in the city, police officers at the agency of about 215 sworn officers were involved in 7 shootings.

Police in Long Beach, which has nearly four times as many officers, had the same number of shootings.

KPCC reviewed hundreds of police shootings in Los Angeles and San Bernardino Counties for the series Officer Involved. In reviewing District Attorney reports in both counties, KPCC found about one in four people shot was unarmed, and that the vast majority of those shot in San Bernardino showed signs of drug or alcohol use. In addition, the analysis found that black people were fatally shot at higher rates than their proportion of the population.