San Francisco

Department of Justice Report Cites Bias Against Minority Groups by San Francisco Police

San Francisco police use force against blacks more often than other racial groups and pull over African American drivers at a disproportionately high rate, according to a U.S. Department of Justice report released Wednesday that found evidence of bias on the force that is nearly equal parts white and minority.

The DOJ's Office of Community Oriented Policing Services conducted the review at the request of city officials following protests over the fatal shooting of a black man, Mario Woods, and the disclosure that some officers had exchanged racist and homophobic text messages.

The report focused on five areas: use of force, bias, community policing, accountability, and recruitment or hiring.

"There are significant deficiencies in all five areas," Ronald Davis, director of the DOJ's Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, said at a news conference announcing the findings.

The report also noted there were 11 fatal incidents involving San Francisco officers in the past three years and nine involved people of color.

"There's going to be some hard truths told today," Davis said. "But to be selectively ignorant and pretend nothing is going on around you will ultimately be fatal to the organization."

DOJ officials advised that more research was needed to determine whether the use of force figures reflect racism, discrimination or other factors such as a higher volume of calls.

The department does not adequately investigate officers’ use of force or keep complete and consistent data on incidents, the report said.

"The assessment team found the San Francisco Police Department to be an organization of good intention but that sometimes failed in execution with respect to accountability and ensuring appropriate cultural standards," the report says.

The report makes 272 recommendations to help the department improve policies and practices and build community trust. But the measures are not binding.

The DOJ office that reviewed San Francisco police is distinct from the DOJ's civil rights division, which investigated the Ferguson, Missouri, and Cleveland police departments last year, resulting in binding reforms detailed in legal settlements.

San Francisco — a rainbow-flagged city that prides itself on diversity — has a population that is nearly half Asian and Hispanic. Many blacks have left the city and now make up just 6 percent of its population.

San Francisco's police department reflects the city's diversity and has only a slight white majority among its 2,000 officers. Nine percent of officers are black.

Like many cities, racial tensions have intensified in recent years, fueled in part by police killings caught on video such as the death of Woods in December.

His shooting sparked protests and led to the resignation of then-Police Chief Greg Suhr in May.

Earlier in the year, a judge ruled that Suhr had waited too long to discipline officers who had exchanged racist and homophobic text messages.

Suhr said he delayed discipline because he didn't want to interfere with a federal corruption investigation into several officers.

San Francisco's public defender in April released another batch of racist and homophobic text messages among police. The offensive texts referred to a Latino man using a derogatory term and compared black people to "a pack of wild animals on the loose."

"Like many cities across the nation, San Francisco is working to rebuild trust between law enforcement and our communities," Mayor Ed Lee said. He stressed also that the department will focus on "fair and just policing that treats everyone the same and places sanctity of life above all else."

Lee and interim police chief Toney Chaplin said they were committed to implementing every recommendation in the federal report.

"It's going to be painful up front, but rewarding on the back end," Chaplin said.

Police Commission President Suzy Loftus agreed, saying in a statement: "I wanted an unflinching, unsparing review — and I'm glad we got it. The first step is to see this report as the blue print for reform."

The DOJ report found 37 percent of the department's nearly 550 use-of-force incidents over three years starting in May 2013 involved African Americans. Thirty-five percent involved whites and 18 percent Hispanics.

Black drivers were also disproportionately pulled over in relation to their overall numbers in the driving population, according to the report. Nearly 15 percent of 330,000 traffic stops involved African Americans.

The report found that African American and Hispanic drivers were also more likely to be searched and arrested than whites.

In a statement, the San Francisco Police Department conceded to several findings of bias and promised "to increase transparency and public trust and to meet national best practice standards for community policing."

Police also said they plan to "move rapidly to root out implicit and explicit bias." Toward that end, the statement said department leaders believe new, updated technology will help officers to better collect and share data, in turn improving the department's transparency.

"San Francisco has the second oldest police department in the nation and it shows,” Chaplin said in the statement.

Ranking members of the police force will supervise the implementation of changes in coming weeks, Chaplin said, noting that he views the report as "a roadmap for 21st century policing and as a validation of the hard work we have committed to with our community partners."

For its part, the San Francisco Police Officers Association fired back against questions about the power it yields, saying instead that it has been fully cooperative with the DOJ investigation.

In a statement, the union pointed to a sentence on page 72 of the report, which says: "It is important to note that these findings do not prove racial bias by officers of the SFPD or by the agency as a whole."

The union also accused the DOJ report of "[contradicting] the allegations coming from our harshest critics, who have unfairly painted San Francisco’s finest as a Jim Crow-era police officers from the Deep South."

The DOJ says this report is a start, and officials will remain a part of the process for three years to make sure the San Francisco Police Department adopts the recommendations.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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