a police chief at the podium
Police Chief Bill Scott at a community listening session in September, 2022. Photo by Eleni Balakrishnan.

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. 

This description highlights the use of force in situations where racial discrimination is prevalent, resulting in outcomes that are below average.
Chart from SFPD’s 175 page report, which was left out of its presentation in July.

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.

Graph showing high racial disparities in use of force against Black people in San Francisco, from late 2022 through mid 2023
Graph showing high racial disparities in use of force against Black people in San Francisco, from late 2022 through mid 2023.

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.” 

Follow Us

REPORTER. Eleni reports on policing in San Francisco. She first moved to the city on a whim more than 10 years ago, and the Mission has become her home. Follow her on Twitter @miss_elenius.

Join the Conversation


  1. Any reason that there is no data with respect to the asian population of SF? Asians make up 37% of the population so they would be a very large data set, as compared to black 6% or Hispanic 16%. Maybe it’s because the data for Asians would complicate the obvious conclusion that whoever generated the chart wanted to put forward.

    votes. Sign in to vote
  2. “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”

    There are multiple layers that intervene between the baseline city demographics and the use of force calculations:
    – First, the likelihood of someone committing a crime
    – Second, the likelihood of SFPD having an interaction with a person suspected of committing a crime
    – Third, the actions taken by the suspect during that interaction
    – Fourth, the likelihood of SFPD responding to those actions by deciding to use force or not to use force

    This is complex to say the least. On top of that, presumably not all uses of force involve suspects who are residents of San Francisco.

    votes. Sign in to vote
  3. The residential addresses of the people arrested need to e investigated. A good deal of the crime reported in the media is cause by people who live out of the City and come in to commit their crimes. This is particularly true of drug dealers and guys who break into cars. Thus the demographics of residents should not be compared to the demographics of people committing crimes.

    votes. Sign in to vote
  4. Regardless as to whether these are the right metrics (see the commenter above with respect to comparing city demographics vs. arrested demographics), the 2016-2022 graph is a bit deceiving in how it is presented, comparing quarterly numbers in 2022 vs. annual numbers in 2016-2021.

    The way the graph is visually presented is that performance is worsening out of control in Q4 2022 when compared to previous years.

    But the average for 2022 is (15+9+11+25)/4 = 15, the same value as seen for years 2016, 2017, and 2019. So if looked at an annual level, 2022 would look like a return to 2019 levels, but not out of bounds compared to previous years. Maybe there’s a seasonal trend where Q4 is always the worst quarter, maybe 2022 was going really well until something changed, but I can’t tell.

    Did annual results decline compared to 2020? Yes. Abnormally so vs. the last 5 years? Not at all.

    Honestly I have zero confidence in the competency of neither the police commission nor the police department to really speak to these numbers, especially with the high potential for bias on either side.

    Let’s get some Will Jarrett in here to break it down!

    votes. Sign in to vote
  5. The reason is basic: black males are 6% of the population but commit 50% of all violent crime (FBI stats)…an inconvenient truth for white saviors…

    votes. Sign in to vote
  6. Absolute equal division of the numbers will never happen. If we are going by simple division of population, then half the people in prison should be women. Half the people arrested for domestic violence have to be women. Half of those arrested for drunk driving have to be women. Half of those arrested for robbery have to be women. If we demand total and absolute equity, then my prior statements must come to fruition. Unless, there are other factors this article neglects

    votes. Sign in to vote
  7. Articles like this have no interest in presenting two sides of the conversation. It’s weak journalism or an opinion piece at best. The conclusion is set in the headline and the content solely tries to support that conclusion. Only the factors that speak to this conclusion are included and many others are ignored. Additionally, the headline stating SFPD “can’t explain” says it all. They can explain it but you’ve already drawn your conclusion and ignore any other facts or opinions that don’t support your agenda. This is politics, not journalism. Hell, the only reason people follow this rag is to support their own personal agenda rather than find objective articles or learn facts. Trash. Hiding from my Google feed.

    votes. Sign in to vote
  8. Mission Local is like a remedial journalism class.

    Most of us have moved on to the more important issues of reducing the crime rate, stopping the tide of businesses closing, and revitalizing downtown.

    You all are still stuck in 2019.

    votes. Sign in to vote
  9. Scott needs to have a seat permanently, and SFPD needs complete revamping.

    votes. Sign in to vote
  10. A paramilitary operation concealing information from civilian authority is insubordination.

    votes. Sign in to vote
  11. It always deeply saddens me when the commenters miss the point. Either it’s willful ignorance, deliberate indifference or outright racism to not care that Black people are 25 times more likely to have force used against them than white people.
    That’s the point.
    And no, Black people don’t commit crimes more than white people.
    White people use drugs and sell drugs just as often as Black and Brown people.
    It’s not biased to report newsworthy information, like the fact that SFPD has no explanation for this disparity which leaves one with the conclusion that it must be bias that causes this. And before you all flip out and start yelling and screaming, remember George Floyd. He was not a one off. There are literally thousands of George Floyds in this country. Police forces as we know them today emerged from slave patrols in the Deep South. There is a long, well documented history of policing being used to control and subjugate the Black population of this country.
    No one wants this to be true.
    No one wants to believe that maybe SFPD uses force on Black people 25 times more often because of bias, explicit or implicit.
    But that’s why we have studies.
    That’s why we take a closer look at the evidence and do statistical analysis.
    And if you strip away all other non-racial factors and you still have a disparity, then the evidence is beyond a reasonable doubt: SFPD uses force disproportionately on Black people because of bias.
    Stop blaming reporters at ML for reporting the news. This isn’t bias – it’s a recounting of facts by a reporter who attended a commission meeting of our local city and county government.
    It’s offensive when people accuse ML of having some anti-cop or whatever agenda. All people want safety and security, and that includes the unhoused and Black people.
    Thank you ML for covering local government because when communities lose this type of journalism, no eyes are watching, and misconduct goes unreported and no one is held accountable.

    votes. Sign in to vote
    1. Thank you for offering a very reasonable explanation of what and why there is a high rate of state sanctioned violence against this demographics.There are too many folks who are uninterested in critically thinking about these statistics. They would rather rely on stereotypes and personal biases than to think about these statistics as part of a larger historical pattern.

      Thank you Mission Local, for continuing to speak truth to power!

      votes. Sign in to vote
    2. As one who’s advanced police reform in SF long before BLM and who had high hopes for BLM, WTF happened to BLM?

      Did BLM get coopted by the nonprofit careerists? We all saw Garza’s work locally and many expected as much. Grifters too can create viral hashtags. Are activists of color organizing against policing learning from this record of cooption for next time?

      votes. Sign in to vote
Leave a comment
Please keep your comments short and civil. Do not leave multiple comments under multiple names on one article. We will zap comments that fail to adhere to these short and very easy-to-follow rules.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *