By Shoshana Walter, The Bay Citizen

SFPD squad car. (Photo: Todd Lappin/Flickr)
The San Francisco Police Department, relying on antiquated computer technology, routinely recorded nearly all Asians who were arrested in the city as “Chinese” until this month, department officials said.

Arrest data that included the “Chinese” numbers was released to the public and sent to law enforcement agencies for at least 10 years, contributing to a skewed understanding of who was being arrested by San Francisco police.

The Chinese classifications baffled Asian community leaders who said the lack of statistics about Asian arrests have made it difficult to know where to focus scarce resources and have contributed to a stereotype of most Asian groups as “model minorities” who never commit crimes.

“It’s crazy,” said Eddy Zheng, who does gang outreach for the Community Youth Center, a San Francisco-based organization focused on Asian youth. “It is an injustice.”

Police Chief Greg Suhr told the San Francisco Police Commission on Sept. 12 that the department would start collecting accurate data for the 18 ethnic categories accepted by the California Department of Justice based on how people who are arrested identify themselves.

“If someone asks somebody, ‘Hey, what ethnicity are you?’ We’ll report that,” Suhr told the commission.

In 2010, the most recent year for which figures are available, the department reported 760 Chinese, one Japanese and nine Filipino arrests. When the department submitted its arrest data to state authorities, it informed them that the “Chinese” category included Asian arrestees of all ethnicities, Suhr told The Bay Citizen after the meeting.

The state Department of Justice, however, did not appear to get the message. It recorded the Asian arrests as Chinese in its annual crime report.

According to the 2010 census, Asians are the largest minority group in San Francisco, comprising a third of the population. Of the city’s Asians, 64 percent are of Chinese descent.

“How do we know how many Filipinos, Koreans, Vietnamese are arrested?” said Rudy Asercion, the executive director of the West Bay Pilipino Multi-Service Center and a member of the police department’s community outreach group for Asian American and Pacific Islanders. “Right now we have no idea if Filipinos are getting arrested in big numbers or small numbers, or what kind of intervention do we need to do. That’s the thing I’m really sorry about.”

Recording most Asian arrestees as Chinese is just one of the data collection problems the department has faced. The Bay Citizen reported last month that for years the police department had been misreporting the race and ethnicity of many arrestees, including classifying all Latinos as “white.”

Police officials have blamed the inaccurate arrest data on a 40-year-old computer system that provides officers with only four categories: white, black, Chinese and other.

“Whoever created that system – just having those four categories – I think that’s racist,” said Zheng of the Community Youth Center.

The misreporting, he said, likely led to a misallocation of city funds.

“It’s not only the Chinese who are committing crimes and who are engaged in criminal activities,” he said. “You’re raising the crime rate for the Chinese population and minimizing the other population. Then you don’t necessarily get those resources because they think they don’t have any problems.”

Following The Bay Citizen articles, Chief Technology Officer Susan Giffin said the department wrote a computer code to convert all Chinese arrests to Asian in the data sent to Sacramento. She also told the Police Commission that the department would begin tracking and reporting the arrests of Hispanics and 17 other ethnicities, including white, black, Chinese, Filipino, Vietnamese, Japanese and Korean.

In addition, Suhr issued a departmentwide memo directing all officers to begin recording the race and ethnicity of everyone who is jailed.

“We’re going to give a departmental report to this commission with the race reporting and the ethnicity reporting of all 18 ethnicities,” Suhr said. “For the city of San Francisco, this commission will know the race and ethnicity reporting of all the arrest data.”

The department’s reporting practices have alarmed some city officials and civil rights advocates who view accurate data as a way to track use of police resources and hold the department accountable.

“A lot of us were really shocked to learn about this issue considering we are in San Francisco, sort of part of the center of technology in the nation,” Micaela Davis, an attorney at the ACLU of Northern California, told the commission. “To learn that smaller counties in rural California have been reporting proper data and statistics on Hispanics, and we’re not because we don’t have the proper equipment was pretty shocking. I’m glad we’re paying attention to this issue.”

Public defender Jeff Adachi applauded the department’s pledge to tally the race and ethnicity of arrestees.

“It’s a positive development. It should have happened a long time ago,” he said in an interview. “Not having those arrest statistics, very basic information like that, is wrong. It’s outrageous.”

On top of the department’s other reporting errors, police officers were not filling in racial and ethnic categories on arrest forms when transferring arrestees to the San Francisco County Jail, interim Sheriff Vicki Hennessy said in an interview.

It remains unclear what will happen to years of erroneous arrest data. The ACLU of Northern California and the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, a San Francisco-based nonprofit, have asked the department to fix the old statistics. Both groups relied on the data in concluding that African Americans were arrested at significantly higher rates than other races in San Francisco.

And the police department’s computer system is still unable to track more than four categories, which means that criminal justice agencies in the same network, including the public defender’s office, the district attorney’s office and the probation department, will continue receiving incomplete data, city officials said.

The sheriff’s department, however, is ahead of the curve.

Giffin said the ability to begin tracking 18 ethnicities is thanks to a technology upgrade this month at the sheriff’s department, which operates the jail. Every time an individual is booked into the facility, she said, deputies can choose between five racial categories and 18 different ethnicities.

The sheriff’s department has agreed to provide the police department with data on the ethnicity of the people it arrested.

“It’s good to be able to get info that you need in order to make better decisions,” Sheriff Hennessey said. “It’s a value in understanding who we’re serving and who is in our jails.”

This story was produced by The Bay Citizen, a project of the Center for Investigative Reporting. Learn more at www.baycitizen.org.

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