SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Amid increasing national scrutiny over shootings of unarmed minorities by police, citizen complaints about police are at a 25-year low in California, according to a report from the state attorney general.
“It certainly creates a different impression in regards to the recent reports of police shootings,” Justin McCrary, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law, said Thursday.
With crime rates down in 2014, it’s not surprising that contacts between citizens and police also dropped, leading to fewer complaints, said McCrary, who studies crime and policing.
The report released by Attorney General Kamala Harris this week shows fewer than 15,700 complaints about police last year. That’s down from a high of more than 24,000 complaints in 2007 and from an average of nearly 19,900 complaints annually since 1990.
Separately, the attorney general reported that most major crimes, including homicide, robberies and burglaries, also declined in 2014.
Most of the complaints against peace officers allege noncriminal behavior. Fewer than 1,300 complaints were upheld, including 109 involving criminal conduct. Those numbers also are down over recent years.
Christopher Slobogin, a psychiatry professor and director of Vanderbilt Law School’s Criminal Justice Program, said police agencies and officers can’t help but be aware of recent incidents making national headlines and are adjusting their behavior and policies.
“That alone is going to make them more cautious,” he said.
Moreover, “there’s no doubt that cameras have become more ubiquitous,” Slobogin said. “The police know this and it wouldn’t be at all surprising that it affected their behavior on the street.”
Amador County Sheriff Martin Ryan, president of the California State Sheriffs’ Association, is among those who believe that officers increasingly wearing cameras will continue to reduce the number of citizen complaints as well as police use of force. But he said too few agencies were using them to have affected last year’s rate.
More prevalent were cellphone and surveillance camera footage obtained by the public, which can quickly gain traction on social media. Officers are aware they may be photographed, but Ryan said once they are in a dangerous situation their training kicks in.
He also noted that about a third of complaints come from inmates in prisons and jails, who may be complaining about conditions.
Ryan and Ventura Police Chief Ken Corney credited improved training in California, better background checks and psychological evaluations of police candidates for reducing citizen complaints, as well as increased emphasis on community partnerships.
Corney, first vice president of the California Police Chiefs Association, said despite sensationalized cases, there are still relatively few incidents of police misconduct compared with tens of thousands of interactions.
“There’s been a lot of focus on some things that don’t happen that frequently,” he said.