After more than a decade of law enforcement agencies systematically underreporting minority arrest figures, the city of San Francisco is now handcuffed and encumbered by a police department that has no accurate representation of actual incarceration numbers. All that can be assured is that blacks are jailed at a much higher rate than even the widely disproportionate levels now being classified as factual.
In routinely reporting the arrest rates of the city’s two largest minority groups, Latinos as whites and Asians as “others, "to the
Department of Justice since 1999, law enforcement have wildly skewed such statistics, thereby creating a system of distorted and unreliable information that, nonetheless, is used as a means of validating many of the department’s long criticized policies and practices.
For years, concerns over racial profiling have been raised by African-American and Latino neighborhood groups, sparking citywide hearings and proposed policy changes which have often fallen on deaf ears based on what now most all agree appears faulty data. As far back as a decade ago, the Police Commission ordered the department to begin tracking racial dynamics of all traffic stops, yet disciplinary records now reveal most officers still neglected to fill out and classify all related and appropriate forms whenever actual arrests were made.
“This is just extremely troubling,” said Francisco Ugarte, senior immigration attorney at the San Francisco Immigrant Legal and Education Network. “If San Francisco is effectively unable to categorize those in the city being arrested, that would undermine our ability to monitor police practices – particularly in San Francisco, with such a huge Latino population.”
All the clearly blatant discrepancies were uncovered by the nonpartisan, nonprofit Bay Citizen news organization during a routine study of data presented for the year ending June 2010. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, 9,151 “whites” were arrested that year, compared with 8,198 blacks, 325 Hispanics and 2,800 “others,” numbers that even the most ardent SPD defenders themselves now acknowledge as grossly inaccurate.
“We have certainly made more than 300 arrests in the Hispanic community,” said Deputy Chief Lyn Tomioka. “I look at that number as a police officer and I can tell that it is inaccurate.”
Still, Tomioka and other top brass seem to take exception to most any other criticisms lodged against the department, despite what clearly seems to be a fundamental shortcoming on the part of their system of operations. “You're making it sound like officers choose to do this. It's what the system has available to the officers to put in,” she argued.
In essentially taking the same stance, Susan Griffin, chief technology officer for the department, was even more defensive in her positioning. “Not only can we not tell you if the numbers are right, we really can’t articulate what the problems are, or if there are problems,” she said.
Currently blacks make up only 6 percent of the total San Francisco population, yet account for roughly 40 percent of all of its arrests. Based on reported statistics, Latinos, who constitute 15 percent of the city’s population, account for 1.5 percent of all arrests. Though at 36 percent of the population and trailing only whites in size, arrest numbers reported for Asians seem to offer little justice relevant to their police-related treatment and interactions with officers.
Even though arresting officers are now entrusted with highlighting if an individual is Latino or Asian on all arrest reports, to a man most of them blame an antiquated computer system for most of their inaccuracies.
Installed some 40 years ago, the system still used today lists three categories for identifying arrestees by race: blacks, whites and other. Although the department could calculate the numbers manually, officers admittedly have been identifying Latinos as “white” and Asians as “other” in the system for years.
By law, the department is required to report crime and arrest statistics to the California Department of Justice each month. The state attorney general's office and the FBI then publish the data in many of their crime reports, including the annual “Crime in California” manual.
In addition, the statistics are routinely used in various studies on racial disparities and trends in arrest rates.
“Oh, my goodness; I had no idea,” Lorena Melgarejo, director of community organizing at the Central American Resource Center, said of all the misclassified information. “The police department says the community’s trust is very important to them. If they are underreporting numbers, they are basically making it impossible for us to understand what is really happening.”
At the request of Police Chief Greg Suhr, officials from the city’s controller’s office now insist they are reviewing all the unit’s technology issues, though the Chief also admits the department has no plans of correcting any old errors.
Nearly two years to the day, noted Queens College sociology professor Harry Levine co-authored a widely disseminated study on marijuana-related arrest in California in which he and other researchers unearthed patterns where blacks and other minorities were as much as 12 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possessions as whites.
Even back then, Levine chose to exclude the San Francisco area because of what he termed “screwy” arrest rates. “Accurate data provides a way of seeing who it is that is being systematically given preference or systematically excluded,” he said. "In terms of making a fairer, more just, more equal world, it is good to know what powerful institutions are doing.”
Glenn Minnis is a NYC-based sports and culture writer. Follow him on Twitter at @glennnyc.