Fatal shootings by Southern California law enforcement officers have been vastly under-reported in recent years, but there appears to be no solid evidence pointing to outright cover-ups.
Instead, according to an exhaustive five-year study by the Orange County Register, the overriding explanation seems to be confusion, errors and cracks in the reporting and data systems between local agencies and state justice officials.
During the five-year period (2007-11) studied by the Register, 11 men were fatally shot by members of seven different law enforcement agencies in San Diego County.
They were among 67 in four Southern California counties (Los Angeles, Orange and San Bernadino were the others) whose “officer-involved” shooting deaths went unreported to state officials -- a one-in-five overall ratio – even though some of the deadly incidents had gotten extensive news media coverage.
A San Diego Sheriff's spokesman told NBC 7 that his department has upgraded its record-keeping and data procedures after its four unreported cases were brought to its attention in January by journalists from the Register.
He noted that the state’s database occasionally misses amendments or neglects to enter updates on pending cases from local jurisdictions.
The Register reported that the Los Angeles and San Bernardino sheriffs' departments also had made adjustments in response to the study.
Other agencies involved in San Diego County officer-involved death cases reviewed by the newspaper were the U.S. Marshal’s Service, California Highway Patrol, San Diego County Probation Department, and San Diego El Cajon, and La Mesa police departments.
Meantime, one finding in the Register analysis is raising eyebrows among civil rights advocates: 22 percent of the unreported fatalities involved African-Americans, in a region where African-Americans represent only 6 percent of the population.
"I think the community should be very concerned,” said Lei-Chala Wilson, president of the San Diego chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. “Right now we're dealing with issues of racial profiling. And to me it goes hand in hand with the fact that African Americans are more likely to get stopped, detained or arrested by police. But now it's even more horrific because they're more likely to be shot."
In an interview Monday, Wilson offered this view of law enforcement’s attitude toward men of color: "They just have a perception that maybe they're more dangerous. So it goes back to human bias. It goes back to the training. It goes back to perception. And I think they need a little more 'cultural competency'."
Wilson later met with San Diego Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman, telling NBC 7 she raised the issue of disproportionate African American fatalities in that study -- and that Zimmerman said she'd take a close look at it.
The two also discussed body cameras that hundreds of SDPD officers soon will begin wearing body cameras, a step aimed at improving accountability and community relations.
“I am fairly confident that the community, the NAACP, the ACLU will address these issues,” Wilson said. “And we'll make sure it's not forgotten."