The San Francisco Police Department is struggling to explain why its officers use force far more often on Black people than on white people. In a city where Black residents make up less than six percent of the population, they account for nearly half of the use-of-force incidents by police officers.
On Wednesday, the San Francisco Police Commission held a hearing, during which the police department was meant to explain skyrocketing racial disparities in force used on civilians. In the last quarter of 2022, police used force on Black people 25 times as often as on white people.
But the explanation from police representatives last night fell short in the eyes of the commissioner who had called for this presentation.
Commissioner Jesus Yáñez had demanded answers after the San Francisco Police Department in July gave a presentation to the Police Commision on use of force and racial disparities — but failed to include a chart that showed a massive spike in disparities, beginning in the final quarter of 2022.
The department did not address its exclusion of significant data and, what’s more, it was unable to explain why racial disparities in use of force are widening in San Francisco. Police Chief Bill Scott, in fact, seemed to question the existence of any racial bias at the police department whatsoever.
Following Mission Local’s reporting on rising disparities and the conspicuous exclusion of this data, Yáñez has repeatedly called for a hearing on the matter. Last night’s presentation, however, hardly satiated the commissioner, who called it “deficient.”
Jason Cunningham, a program manager with the police department’s Professional Standards and Principled Policing Bureau, proffered one primary explanation for the increased disparity. According to Cunningham, force was used less frequently on both Black and white people in San Francisco in late 2022 — but that the decrease was sharper for whites.
That, he said, contributed to an apparent spike in force against Black people. In the fourth quarter of 2022, Black people in San Francisco had force used on them at 25 times the rate of white people, compared to an 11-fold gap the previous quarter.
A problem with that explanation: The disparity has continued to rise even further in 2023. The department has begun calculating its force under its newer policy, making comparison more difficult — but, in the second quarter of 2023, force was used against Black people even more often than in the 2022 spike. Under the new policy, police used force on Black people 21 times as often as whites, compared to an 18-fold difference at the end of 2022.
The police department has blamed a revised and unfamiliar policy, adopted in mid-2022, for irregularities in use of force. Per police brass, new reporting requirements caused rising instances of “force” being used. On Wednesday night, police commissioners no longer seemed to accept this reasoning.
“In reality, after training, the numbers continue to climb,” Yáñez said.
Commissioner Kevin Benedicto agreed: “It wasn’t just a single blip. It’d be one thing if it looked like it reverted … but instead, whatever this jump was at the end of 2022, appears to be, in some form, persistent.”
When pressed on the persistent and glaring racial disparities, Cunningham chalked it up to “one of the hardest questions in social science.”
“Determining the ‘why’ … does require a level of analytical capacity that generally doesn’t exist in municipal government,” he said.
Yáñez mentioned the department’s omission of the 2022 spike in use-of-force disparities in its July presentation, but the police presenters on Wednesday night did not address the issue. In July, no commissioner raised any questions; none of the commissioners Mission Local spoke with at the time had noticed the shift, as the information was buried in a 145-page report.
“I have yet to hear from them an actual plan, a plan that details where — in either hiring, training or ongoing evaluation of officers who have these allegations — there is a corrective action plan,” said Yáñez in an interview earlier this month. The police department’s use-of-force numbers, he said, showed a “disturbing trend.”
The presenters on Wednesday, members of the SFPD’s Strategic Management and Professional Standards and Principled Policing bureaus, said various studies conducted through the police department’s partnerships with academic institutions and research groups could shed light on the department’s racial disparities.
Cunningham pointed to an upcoming report from the Center for Policing Equity, which could help explain racial disparities in San Francisco policing. That organization’s 2020 report already revealed that Black drivers were pulled over more often, but were less likely to be cited or arrested than white or Asian drivers, and Black and Latinx drivers were most likely to be searched, but police were less likely to find contraband during those searches.
But Chief Bill Scott and the head of the department’s Strategic Management Bureau, Catherine McGuire, seemed reluctant to agree definitively that racial bias exists within the SFPD or that the Center for Policing Equity study confirmed this.
“Do you think this department still has a problem, when it comes to racial bias?” asked Commission Vice President Max Carter-Oberstone.
Carter-Oberstone pointed to the department’s racist and homophobic text scandal, its “like” of a social media account mocking George Floyd, and a large settlement approved this week for a police officer who allegedly endured racial discrimination from his colleagues at the SFPD.
Scott said the department had a “challenge” to answer the “magic question:” The cause of its disparities.
“I’m not saying that there’s no possibility that bias exists,” Scott said, “but what I’m saying is, we’re trying to figure out what is driving the disparities. If it’s implicit, if it’s explicit, or if it’s other factors.”
McGuire noted that the Center for Policing Equity study couldn’t control for all external factors, and that racial bias wasn’t a certain takeaway. A new study from the same organization, due to be released in the next two years, she said, could possibly help address the question.
“We all want to know why,” she said. “Because if we have the ‘why,’ we can address it.”