by Shoshana Walter, The Bay Citizen
Although African Americans constitute 6 percent of San Francisco’s population, they are about seven times more likely to be arrested than whites, who represent 41.8 percent of the city’s population, according to an analysis of recently released statistics from the California Department of Justice.
The gap between the arrest rates for whites and African Americans in San Francisco is well above state and national averages, a Bay Citizen analysis has found. In California, African Americans are four times more likely to be arrested than whites, and nationwide, about 2.4 times more likely to face arrest.
The disparity in the arrest rates is likely even larger than reported because the police department has routinely misclassified Latino arrestees as “white.” A recent Bay Citizen investigation revealed that the department has classified Latino arrestees as white and Asian arrestees as “other” for at least a decade, sending the erroneous statistics to the state Department of Justice and the FBI. Department officials have blamed an outdated computer system that allows officers to only categorize individuals as white, black and other for the incorrect data.
According to the Department of Justice report, 8,198 African Americans and 9,151 whites were arrested in San Francisco in 2010, along with 316 Hispanic adults and nine Hispanic juveniles. About 2,800 arrestees are listed as “other.” The Bay Citizen calculated the arrest rates based on the population of each group in the city.
While department officials have admitted that the numbers of Latino and white arrestees are incorrect, they said that the reported statistics on African American arrests are accurate.
Mayor Ed Lee recently backed away from a “stop-and-frisk” proposal over concerns that it would unfairly target Latinos and African Americans. He instead unveiled a new plan that would involve flooding police into areas where they predict crimes will occur. As he pushes the department to reduce violent crime, civil rights advocates say the inflated statistics and disparities raise new concerns about racial profiling in the city.
“It is deeply concerning on a number of levels,” said Kelli Evans, the associate director of the ACLU of Northern California. “It means that the racial disparities in arrests is even greater than what was previously reported, and those rates were already unacceptably high.”
African Americans in San Francisco are six times more likely than the reported number of whites to be arrested for misdemeanor marijuana possession, eight times more likely to be arrested for violating traffic laws and nearly nine times more likely to be arrested for failing to appear at a court hearing, according to The Bay Citizen’s analysis.
Deputy Chief Lyn Tomioka insisted the department does not engage in racial profiling.
“We are strictly opposed to any form of biased policing, and we have policies forbidding it,” Tomioka said.
Susan Giffin, the department’s chief technology officer, said the arrest rate for African Americans may be higher because some suspects are arrested more than once in a year and because some suspects who live outside of the city commit crimes in San Francisco believing they will face fewer criminal penalties. The department did not provide any data to support those claims.
The department has long faced accusations of racial profiling due to high African American arrest rates.
In response to those concerns, the department agreed to collect racial data from traffic stops in 2001. The department implemented a policy specifically prohibiting biased policing in 2003, after a study by the ACLU of Northern California found that San Francisco police officers pulled over African Americans and Latinos at a much higher rate than whites.
In 2007, after the San Francisco Chronicle reported that the city’s arrest rate for African Americans was the highest in the state, the city hired Lorie Fridell, an expert on racial profiling, to assess the department and train officers on techniques to prevent biased policing. Fridell trained the command staff and recommended the department institute new training for officers and supervisors. Since then, most of the commanders who received Fridell’s training have left the department or have been reassigned. Two remain on the current command staff. And the department’s training on biased policing remains largely unchanged.
Upon entering the police academy, San Francisco officers currently receive about 42 hours of “impartial policing” and “cultural competency” training, in which officers learn about the differences between racism and racial profiling and the challenges facing low-income minority communities. Every five years, officers attend state-mandated “advanced officer training,” which includes about two hours on racial profiling.
Fridell said the department needs to direct officers and supervisors on how to identify and respond to officers engaged in racial profiling. She also said the training should show how biases effect key decisions at every level, from traffic stops and searches and detentions, to supervisor approvals. While the department teaches officers to be aware of cultural differences, Fridell said officers should learn to be aware of their biases that are unconscious.
“That is one of the most important things that an agency needs to do,” Fridell said. “We need to get away from this notion that only ill-intentioned, racist, evil police can do biased policing. What the science tells us is that even well-intentioned police can do biased policing because their human biases impact their perceptions, and that impacts their behavior. Everybody has biases, so there needs to be top to bottom training on bias.”
Fridell and other criminologists interviewed by The Bay Citizen said that arrest statistics alone are not proof of biased policing. High arrest rates can be influenced by a number of factors, including socioeconomic status and geography.
Residents of high crime neighborhoods are often scrutinized more than residents who live in less criminally active neighborhoods, criminologists said. Wealthier drug users, for example, may buy drugs inside their homes, while lower-income drug users buy on the street or in public parks, where officers can easily spot them.
Earlier this summer, Lee said he was considering implementing a “stop-and-frisk” policy as a way to reduce gun violence in the city’s southeast corridor, where many African American residents live. But Lee changed his mind after protests from civil rights groups and members of the Board of Supervisors. His new public safety plan places more scrutiny on “known criminals” – parolees and probationers – and increases police presence in areas where the department predicts crime will occur.
Criminologists said the mayor’s plan may not reduce the disparity in arrest rates.
“The cops aren’t out there on marijuana patrol. They don’t care about marijuana,” said Franklin Zimring, a criminologist at UC Berkeley. “They’re making an arrest to get fingerprints, to find out if there are warrants, if these are bad guys. Because they are young minority males in a high crime area where the cops thought they were up to no good.”
Supervisor Malia Cohen said she requested more patrol officers this summer to help reduce violence in her district, which includes Bayview-Hunters Point.
“I don’t believe that an increased presence of officers at Bayview Station is synonymous with an increase in racial profiling,” Cohen wrote in an email to The Bay Citizen.
But many residents of Cohen’s district disagree.
“Not everybody’s a suspect,” said Kevin Epps, an activist and documentary filmmaker from Bayview-Hunter’s Point, a historically African American neighborhood that has a high violent crime rate. “But the reality of it is that people come into the neighborhood like police officers that may be from a different experience, and they have all these stereotypes and misconceptions and misunderstandings and come in with the mindstate that this community is criminal.”
Zimring said the department should be concerned by the high rate of African American arrests.
“If they don’t know what explanations lie behind it, then one hopes that they’re motivated to try and find out,” he said.
This story was produced by The Bay Citizen, a project of the Center for Investigative Reporting. Learn more at www.baycitizen.org.