A line of police blocks Powell Street to the public, February 2018.

Use of force by SFPD officers continues on a sharp downward trend, according to recently released use-of-force data.  

Citywide, SFPD continues to disproportionately use force on people of color, specifically African Americans, the numbers show. And, despite the overall downturn in use-of-force incidents, there were four deaths at the hands or under the watch of San Francisco officers in 2017, compared to three in 2016.

For its part, Mission Station has seen a decline in its officers’ use of force, although not as sharp a decline as other districts with similar call volumes, such as Central, Southern and Tenderloin stations.

What is use of force?

Use of force includes firing a gun, pointing a gun, using pepper spray, physical contact, batons or “less-lethal” firearms that shoot bean-bag rounds.

Officers are required to report any kind of force when it is used. The pointing of firearms made up 67 percent of incidents, followed by physical control at nearly 20 percent, and striking someone with an object or fist at 7.9 percent.

One explanation for the decline in use of force is that de-escalation tactics, such as creating time and distance between subjects, is now being emphasized in training. But beyond this, it is difficult to figure out why the numbers are declining.

Higher-ups at the SFPD are loath to comment on forces driving the numbers. Police Chief Bill Scott has said that the department is in the process of finding an outside institution to analyze the data.

Use of force way down, citywide

In the fourth quarter of 2017, SFPD used force 33.6 percent less often, compared to the fourth quarter of 2016.

Compared to year-to-date totals, use-of-force incidents declined 18.5 percent, from 3,747 in 2016 to 3,054 in 2017.

Use of force down in the Mission

The number of times officers used force in the Mission is down 16 percent from the fourth quarter of 2016, from 131 to 110 in the fourth quarter of 2017. Compared to the previous quarter, the number of times force was used declined 20.8 percent from 139 to 110.

Specifically, the station has seen a drop in the number of times officers used physical control, or struck subjects with their fists or objects.

However, officers are pointing their guns slightly more often — 6.6 percent more, an increase from 84 times to 90 times. Those incidents were mainly in response to violent crimes and people carrying guns or other weapons.  

Likewise, compared to the fourth quarter of 2016, the number of people in the Mission on whom force was used dropped 25 percent, from 68 incidents to 50.

Yet it should be noted that, while the Mission has seen a decline, other stations with similar call volumes saw sharper drop-offs in their use of force.

Compared to the fourth quarter of 2016, the Southern District saw a 49.7 percent drop in the number of times officers used force, from 167 times to 84 times. The Northern District saw a 48.8 percent drop from 80 incidents to 41, and the Central District saw a 45.1 percent decline, from 113 incidents to 62.

Black and Latino arrests up in the Mission

Arrests of black and Latino men in the Mission rose by 4.3 percent in the fourth quarter of 2017, compared to the third quarter. In the third quarter, the two groups comprised 52.5 percent of arrests, while in the fourth quarter, they comprised 54.9 percent of arrests.

Black residents make up 2.7 percent of the Mission’s population, while Latinos comprise 46 percent, according to the American Community Survey.   

Meanwhile, arrests of white subjects in the Mission has dropped 29.4 percent from the third quarter of 2017, from 282 to 199 in the fourth quarter. White residents make up 57 percent of the Mission’s population.

Force, arrests, traffic stops disproportionate against people of color

In the fourth quarter of last year, police used force against black subjects in 42 percent of the incidents — 266 of 633 times they used force overall.  

Black residents made up 5.6 percent of the city’s population in 2016, according to U.S. Census data.

White subjects were the second-largest group on whom force was used, making up 25 percent of all force. However, white residents make up 53.5 percent of the city population.

Latinos came in third, comprising 21 percent of times officers used force. Latino residents make up 15.2 percent of the population.

African Americans also made up 43.7 percent of the all suspects observed by or reported to the SFPD, followed by “others” at 19.5 percent, whites at 18.8 percent, and Latinos at 13.1 percent.

In terms of traffic stops, white subjects made up 33.3 percent of all traffic stops in the fourth quarter of 2017, while black subjects made up 21.3 percent and Latinos 15.6 percent.

Fatal shootings & in-custody deaths

A man, identified as “A. Margo-Carlos” in the report, died in police custody after he had been allegedly breaking windows at 15th and Market on March 11, 2017. Police used physical control on him, and he was transported to San Francisco General Hospital, where he died roughly a week later. The incident is under investigation.

On May 3, police shot and killed Nicholas Flusche, who they had suspected of stabbing someone at Turk and Market. The District Attorney did not pursue charges against Officer Kenneth Cha, the officer who shot Flusche. 

On Sept. 23, SFPD shot and killed Damien Murray, who had allegedly been holding his wife and child hostage at a residence at 60 Salmon St. The incident is under investigation. 

On Dec. 1, a rookie officer shot and killed 42-year-old Keita O’Neil, who had allegedly carjacked a California Lottery van and led police on a car chase ending in the Bayview. O’Neil was unarmed. The incident is under investigation. 

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Julian grew up in the East Bay and moved to San Francisco in 2014. Before joining Mission Local, he wrote for the East Bay Express, the SF Bay Guardian, and the San Francisco Business Times.

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  1. This is the kind of skewed analysis I’m referring to above “In the fourth quarter of last year, police used force against black subjects in 42 percent of the incidents — 266 of 633 times they used force overall.

    Black residents made up 5.6 percent of the city’s population in 2016, according to U.S. Census data.””

    1. Greg: Those are points well-taken. You’re right. I do not account for those immeasurables and therefore my analysis does not convey an immaculate truth.

      But it is a controlled comparison. Meaning, I compare the stats to the city’s non-transient white population as well. And the contrast is shocking. 42% of force to 5.6% of the African American population, and 25% of force to 48% of the white population. In what universe does that not indicate disproportionate use of force?

      I should also note that San Francisco’s demographics reflect those of the entire Bay Area. In 2010, the Bay Area’s population was 52.5% white, and 6.7% African American. So it’s not like all that extra force being used on African American commuters.

      Nevertheless, your point is valid: not all of the force outlined in the article is used on San Francisco’s population. I will consider this while writing future articles on use of force.

  2. You write “SFPD continues to disproportionately use force on people of color, specifically African Americans” I presume that with use of force,arrests, prosecution etc. you are comparing the numbers to the African American population of SF. At any given time, SF has a large number of non-residents present. Tourists, commuters and criminals. The comparison might be valid in say,Tulsa OK, however it’s meaningless when applied to San Francisco.