On the Violent Arrest of the Walker of an Unleashed Dog

May 13, 2020

As President of the San Diego Branch of the NAACP, it is my responsibility to be on the lookout for and respond to racism, discrimination, and violations of human and civil rights.

Which brings me to the case of a young woman walking her dog on a public beach.  It is not illegal to walk a dog on this beach.  It is not illegal to walk an unleashed dog on this beach, except at certain times of day—surely a confusing situation for walkers of dogs.

We have no report that this particular unleashed dog had caused any harm at all, but they were breaking a rule.

The lifeguards are said to have approached the young woman and asked her to leash her dog.  We understand that she declined.  We do not even know if this young woman was in possession of a leash.

The lifeguards could have just let it go.  The lifeguards could have called animal control, since the dog was the issue.  Instead, the lifeguards called the police.  Why?

Did they call the police because, as has been so persuasively explained in Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, after the Civil Rights movement there has been a concerted effort by racists to paint African-Americans as criminals, and that has seeped into minds of the lifeguards?  When they see black, do they see crime?

As for the officers of the SDPD, they also had choices available to them.  They could have called animal control.  They could have given the woman a citation and let her go.  They chose to cuff her instead.  When she tried to walk away, they had a further choice.  

They could have let her go.  She had done no harm to anyone.  Her dog had done no harm to anyone.  They could also have chosen to shoot her illegally.

They took a “middle” ground instead, and apprehended her violently, slamming her to the ground three times, knees in her back, and kicking the poor dog that tried to come to her rescue.

Why?  Are they also infected by the idea that black is synonymous with criminal?  Is it so important that they be instantly obeyed in every single circumstance?  Did they perceive in this young woman’s very understandable belief that she was being treated unfairly some existential threat to law and order?  Are they in police work because they are sadists?

We don’t know.

One of the reasons we don’t know is that the San Diego Police Department refuses to have a real conversation about bias and racism in their department.  We give Chief Nisleit credit; he at least can admit that his officers have bias, unlike his predecessor, whose verbal gymnastics around that issue were worthy of Olympic Gold.

Another of the reasons we don’t know is that the SDPD is not transparent about the names of officers involved in controversial incidents, and what their records, positive or negative, are with communities of color.

We understand that officers face life and death decisions, and de-escalation is sometimes not an option.  All the same, there is something seriously wrong when a small young woman in a bathing suit with an unleashed but inoffensive dog is treated like a threat to the safety of officers and the public.  If there ever were a time for de-escalation, this would have been it.

The SDPD says their vision is to “Accept, Adapt, Train and Assess” community policing to build and enhance relationships between the community and the police.  They seem to think this means playing softball and giving out hot dogs.  All the softball in the world isn’t going to make the community trust or respect officers, when those officers target people of color for excessive enforcement and force on a regular basis.

Might this young woman have chosen to cooperate had the reputation of the SDPD not been so poor among communities of color in San Diego?  True community policing results in mutual respect and better outcomes.  Lack of community policing polarizes these relationships, making life more difficult and more dangerous for everyone.

We call for an honest discussion on bias and racism in the San Diego Police Department.  We call for a culture, not of Monday-morning-quarterbacking of every Officer decision, but of an honest attempt to see where things go wrong and improve for the future.  We call for evaluation of officers based on their ability to build relationships with all communities. We call for a culture that holds egregious or habitual offenders accountable.

Francine Maxwell, President
NAACP San Diego Branch