San Francisco police commissioners grilled top police staff about the department’s auditing process on Wednesday night, after a recent report suggested some police officers may be misreporting race data in traffic stops.
The San Francisco Police Department, when auditing its officers’ self-reporting of traffic stops, does not check the veracity of traffic-stop data, a staff member revealed Wednesday — despite a 2021 department-issued order requiring quarterly audits of its data entries.
In fact, the police department only checks whether an entry has been started and left incomplete, the department’s Strategic Management Bureau director Catherine McGuire said before the commission.
“At this time, we just don’t have the capacity to go beyond that,” McGuire said. “I’ve been sort of … singing it from the top of the rooftops that we need some sort of data review, data audit and integrity unit … And that is something that we’re hoping to pursue.”
Police Chief Bill Scott deflected questions about the auditing problems, calling allegations of improper reporting “unvalidated,” and speaking as though he had not read the report from the San Francisco Standard.
The reporting had found that all but six of 1,139 stops made by one officer were of white drivers, an improbable ratio that raised eyebrows among some commissioners. The Department of Police Accountability is also investigating an officer who may have misreported the race in nearly half of his encounters that the oversight agency reviewed.
Instead of addressing the lack of sufficient auditing, Scott said officers might not do their jobs altogether. He feared a “witch hunt” if auditing was not done fairly, and said it could be a “wet blanket, in terms of officers wanting to get out there and do the job.”
Multiple commissioners were displeased.
“It looks like SFPD has buried its head in the sand,” said commission Vice President Max Carter-Oberstone, “and decided that it’s not going to even look, in the first instance, to know if there is a problem with the data.”
Carter-Oberstone, who has frequently sparred with police officials over the SFPD’s failure to comply with reform measures, had called for a review of the department’s stop data audits last week, following the story in the Standard, which recounted officers allegedly misreporting the race of the people they pull over in traffic stops.
Last week, Department of Police Accountability Director Paul Henderson suggested the issue may be widespread, noting investigations of multiple officers who input incorrect race information, obfuscate it by marking multiple races, or leave out required data altogether when filing reports.
On Wednesday night, it became clear that the police department does very little auditing that could flag possible instances of falsification. Carter-Oberstone, for his part, said cursory checks about the data’s validity could have identified issues.
McGuire, the Strategic Management Bureau director, blamed a lack of staffing. She said that the single sergeant manning the SFPD’s Staff Inspection Unit had a “plate that’s full,” but that the department would like to expand its auditing process.
Commissioner Debra Walker, meanwhile, jumped to Scott’s aid, agreeing that officers might be dissuaded from traffic stops altogether. “I agree with you, Chief Scott,” she said. “I think it’s a wonder that anyone pulls anyone over at all.”
The U.S. Department of Justice’s 272 reform recommendations to the SFPD from 2016 point out the department’s failure to conduct routine audits that are required by policy. The feds recommended an auditing plan and prioritization of audits, including adequate staffing to undertake them.
In response, the police department issued the order in 2021 that requires regular audits of its stop data, and it now claims it is in “substantial compliance” with that Justice Department’s recommendation, along with 244 others.
Wednesday’s revelations call that compliance into question.
“This order was created in order to substantially comply with that recommendation,” said the Department of Police Accountability’s Diana Rosenstein, a staff attorney who sat in for Henderson on Wednesday. “And, in light of this presentation, we have concerns about whether it does or not.”
Police Commissioner Jesus Yáñez noted ongoing racial disparities in the department’s traffic stop and use-of-force data. The last quarter of 2022 found that Black people were 25 times more likely than white people to have force used on them — the highest disparity since reporting began in 2016.
“And yet, we don’t see this as something essential to devote time and energy to?” asked Yáñez. “It just sounds like we’re not serious about accountability and transparency.”
The issue will be discussed at a future commission meeting.