Members of the San Francisco Police Commission say they’re unsettled by recent police department data suggesting dramatic and persistent racial bias in officers’ daily interactions with people of color.
“These numbers are disturbing to me,” Commissioner Cindy Elias said Wednesday night during an oft-heated, hour-long exchange with Chief Bill Scott regarding the statistics and what they ultimately revealed about the department’s progress on reform.
Elias was referencing reports on incidents in which officers stopped a person on foot or in their car throughout 2019 and the first three months of 2020. The SFPD’s Racial and Identity Profiling Board report showed that, in 2019, people of color composed 65 percent of these stops, while white people accounted for 35 percent.
Moreover, Elias pointed out, in the fourth quarter of 2019 people of color composed 65.6 percent of stops and 72.1 percent of those searched. Only 34.4 percent of those stopped were white, and only 28.7 percent of those were searched.
“Those numbers are alarming … we are searching people of color more frequently than anyone else,” Elias said. “I asked in 2019 why this was happening and what the solutions are — and I still haven’t heard.”
“I want to know what SFPD is doing about it,” Elias continued. “We know what these numbers are. … The question needs to be, ‘What are we doing about it and how do we get it to stop?’”
Scott said he agreed that the disparities remain a persistent problem. But he argued that the department was actually making progress. He pointed specifically to the so-called “yield rate” of searches, which shows how often officers find something illegal when they stop and search someone. A high yield rate means that officers are more accurate when stopping and searching people. A lower yield rate arises when officers stop and search people, including people of color, based on bad or biased hunches.
He said that when the United States Department of Justice reviewed the SFPD in 2016, the yield rate during searches of African Americans was 10 percent, meaning only one out of every 10 African Americans searched was carrying any contraband. In the first three months of 2020, Scott noted, that number was 29 percent. “That factor has improved,” Scott said.
The police are, indeed, searching people less frequently: between late 2018 and early 2020, police have performed 47 percent fewer searches, according to its numbers. The same period saw a 42 percent drop in stops.
The chief also noted that the department is now offering better training to officers on when and when not to stop people, and when to better employ “reasonable suspicion” and “probable cause” — legal justifications for stopping and searching people. “The training hopefully will improve those indicators and reduce some of these disparities,” Scott said.
He also said the department’s new and revised “Bias-Free Policing” and “Investigative Detentions” policies, both aimed at curbing bias in everyday police encounters, should help. (Both have yet to be implemented.)
But Elias countered that the department could be doing more, noting that the SFPD still relies too heavily on “reasonable suspicion” and “probable cause.” It’s searching too many people simply because they may be on parole or probation, she said. These kinds of searches rely heavily on an officer’s subjectivity, and, perhaps, their internal biases.
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In the first three months of 2020, in fact, people of color are being searched more frequently than whites on these subjective legal bases — and officers are often wrong. Between January and March of 2020, officers found illegal contraband only 34 percent of the time when searching Black people and Latinxs, respectively, based on those searches.
“We were failing,” Elias said. “This is a failing grade because we are searching people of color and not finding anything.”
Elias was, at times, unrelenting in her questioning of Scott and why the numbers were the way they were. The chief continued to point toward the department’s improvements.
“Shootings have gone from an average of six a year to the last two and a half years to less than two,” Scott said, growing visibly flustered. “How can we say that’s not significant progress?”
He said use of force is down 49 percent since 2016, and pointed to the fact that, overall, that number has declined with African Americans. “What I’m saying is there has been concrete progress made,” Scott said.
Elias did not disagree, but she pointed out that being satisfied with incremental progress is not good enough, especially as it remains at the expense of people of color.
“My point is: How, as a department, do we get officers to a point where they aren’t scared when they see a person of color?” Elias said. “Because what these numbers … are telling me is that we’re using weapons against people of color more than we are against white people. We are stopping them more than white people. We are searching them more than white people.”
Commissioner John Hamasaki agreed. “How do you feel if you’re out in your own neighborhood, going to the store and you get run up on by gang task force or a dope team searches you?” he said. “It doesn’t feel like your neighborhood anymore — it doesn’t feel like you’re part of the community anymore because your rights as a citizen have been taken away.”
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