San Francisco Police officers in the Mission District continue to be flagged more often than any others for potential misconduct — and SFPD higher-ups cannot explain why.
In 2020, the system that tracks potential misconduct and allows higher-ups to intervene flagged officers at Mission Station 103 times for repeatedly using force, being the subject of citizen complaints, getting sued, or being investigated by the internal affairs department.
That is far more than any other station in 2020. Officers at Central Station, which patrols downtown, received 76 such alerts, the second-most. Officers in the Tenderloin received around 50 alerts, and officers in Bayview received around 39 alerts, according to an SFPD presentation at Wednesday night’s Police Commission meeting.
Under the early intervention system, the risk factors such as use of force and citizen complaints signal to higher-ups that they should “intervene” with an officer without imposing formal discipline, a measure intended to prevent an officer’s behavior from becoming more problematic down the road.
But the data also offers a snapshot into how officers behave at a particular station.
In 2019, for example, the data showed that officers at Mission Station pointed their guns at people twice as often as officers from other stations, despite other stations recording comparable numbers of arrests and calls for service — and recording comparable levels of violent crime in their districts.
A similar trend continued into 2020, according to the latest round of data, presented on Wednesday. Even though the Tenderloin District recorded the highest number of “Part 1 Violent Crimes” — which include homicides, robberies, rapes and assaults — Mission officers were flagged for using 79 percent more force than Tenderloin officers.
Commission Vice President Cindy Elias asked about this discrepancy. “I still am not understanding the reasoning or explanation [of] why Mission Station has a substantially higher number of alerts,” she said, noting that the Tenderloin District outpaced the Mission in violent crime but recorded half the number of alerts. “Have we figured out why Mission Station is substantially higher?”
Commander Robert O’Sullivan, who presented on the data, said the department had not. While emphasizing that it was merely an “educated guess,” he said that Mission Station recorded the highest number of calls for service. If there are more calls for service, he said, there’s a higher potential for officers to “engage in certain behaviors.”
But O’Sullivan’s educated guess echoed past failed explanations by the SFPD. In the second quarter of 2019, Mission Station received the third-most calls for service, while recording the highest number of risk alerts. Moreover, the SFPD’s own report for the fourth quarter of 2019 stated that there was “no relationship” between calls for service and alerts accrued by officers. It specifically stated that Mission Station “accounted for 25.5 percent of [early intervention system] Alerts but only 13.2 percent of citywide Calls for Service.”
O’Sullivan noted, however, that to meaningfully explain the reason behind Mission Station’s high number of alerts required the SFPD to adopt a more “data-driven system.” And, indeed, the SFPD’s early intervention system remains “highly inaccurate,” according to a University of Chicago study that found the current system flags officers who do not need interventions and misses officers who do.
Researchers recommended that the department adopt a system that uses algorithms and “machine learning” to analyze the compiled data, instead of simply tallying it up.
It’s unclear whether such a system would be able to explain why a particular station uses more force than other stations. But experts like John Alden, the executive director of Oakland’s Community Police Review Agency, an independent watchdog, told Mission Local in late 2019 that data analysis would certainly help the SFPD have an “honest self-reflection” about what the numbers mean.
He also offered an explanation that no SFPD higher-up has yet articulated. “Every Station at SFPD has a culture, reinforced by each officer’s right to pick their station assignment, so some wonder if this trend is caused by Mission Station’s culture,” he said.