The San Francisco Police Department is collecting loads of use-of-force data — but a recently released audit found a crucial component missing: meaningful analysis.
In other words, the audit found, the use-of-force data that the SFPD is mandated to collect — and has been collecting for four years — is largely useless as long as the department’s leadership fails to use it. The latter can, they said, help the department gauge where it can better interact with civilians, train officers, and police more equitably.
Deeper analysis “is important, because a lot of the use-of-force data that’s (currently) reported out is numbers and totals,” Kat Scoggin, an audit manager with the Controller’s Office, said at a Police Commission meeting on Wednesday. “But it’s not looking at intersections of what that data really means.”
Completed in October, the audit was performed by the Department of Police Accountability and the Controller’s Office, and examined the police department’s use-of-force incidents in 2017.
The data has the potential to guide the SFPD’s use-of-force policy, which requires de-escalation and only using force commensurate with the threat. The latter is referred to in policy as “proportionality,” and nuanced data analysis could help the officers use force more proportionally, de-escalate better, and improve supervisor oversight.
Moreover, the audit found, “the department misses opportunities to better understand the role bias may play in officers using force because it does not analyze its use-of-force data beyond the analysis in” its quarterly reports.
As examples, the report highlighted what other departments were doing.
It cited the Spokane Police Department, which analyzes its use of force data through two metrics: “force justification” and “force factor.”
A force justification analysis determines whether a use-of-force incident was necessary, combining factors based on U.S. Supreme Court standards on justified use of force. A low justification score means that force was used during an incident concerning a “non-serious crime” and on a person posing a “low level of resistance” and “did not attempt to flee.”
Thirteen percent of the Spokane’s Police Department’s incidents had a “low force justification” score over six years, the department learned through its analysis and could then use that information to look at why it was being used and adjust training to discourage its use in those situations.
Right now, the SFPD is not interpreting the data with this level of nuance, and it’s clear self-evaluation is lacking.
In contrast to the Spokane Police Department, SFPD merely tracks whether a use-of-force incident was “in-policy” or “not in-policy.”
In fact, a public records request by Mission Local showed that the SFPD gave itself a perfect score on use-of-force incidents in 2019. Save for 20 incidents that were “under review,” every single one of the 1,983 reported use-of-force incidents by San Francisco police officers was found to be “in policy” by supervisors — meaning they determined the force was justified.
“Mathematically, that’s a little strange,” said Commissioner Cindy Elias at Wednesday’s meeting, commenting on similar numbers.
Scoggin, of the Controller’s Office, noted Spokane’s “force factor” — a score based on the proportionality of “force” to “resistance.” A high force factor can indicate that the levels of force officers are using are causing unnecessary injuries to civilians, the Spokane analysis found.
The goal for SFPD in analyzing the data more deeply would ultimately be to revise its training to reduce unnecessary force, the report said. It could also be a metric by which the SFPD can prove to the Police Commission that it is sincere in its efforts to improve interactions at police stops.
Crunching the numbers better could also provide a more vivid understanding of bias and use of force in the SFPD, the report said.
The Berkeley Police Department, for example, assessed how much of the racial disparity in use of force could be explained by neighborhood characteristics, including crime, poverty rates, and neighborhood demographics.
It found that Black residents in Berkeley experience police use of force at a rate approximately 12 times greater than what White residents experience — and that the disparity was “not attributable to random chance and is not explained by local levels of crime, poverty, or racial composition of residents,” the report said, revealing that the police harbored racial bias.
Scoggin said the SFPD could look at its own data in numerous ways to detect widespread bias.
This, according to the report, would help “identify factors that might contribute to bias in using force, understand trends in compliance with policies that mitigate implicit bias … identify specific, relevant bias-mitigation training.”
However, it’s unclear whether the SFPD would even act on better-analyzed use-of-force data or share it with the public. The raw numbers have shown that, since the SFPD began collecting and releasing its use-of-force numbers, people of color — Black men, in particular — are disproportionately on the receiving end of the SFPD’s use-of-force.
Looking at second-quarter data from 2016 to 2020, Black men consistently were on the receiving end of 30 to 40 percent of use-of-force incidents, even though they make up less than five percent of the city population. The numbers persist despite “implicit bias training.”
It’s also unclear whether the SFPD would publicize the analyses. Mission Local asked for a copy of an oft-mentioned “academic analysis” of the department’s use-of-force data in 2017.
The department refused to release it.