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An article in the Bay Citizen today sheds much needed light on the importance and lack of accurate data collection in San Francisco. In particular, the article notes the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) underreports the arrests of Latino and Asian residents (the city’s two largest minority groups) by misclassifying them at white” or other.” These inaccuracies have significant repercussions that effect not only law enforcement, but policymakers, and local residents. 

For example in April 2012, CJCJ presented an updated report to the San Francisco Human Rights Commission examining the racial disparities in the city’s drug-related arrests. The report was an update of previous analyses conducted in 2002, 2004, and 2005 that documented a 40+ year history of racially discriminatory arrest practices against African Americans. The conflation of racial categories could result in a larger White” arrest category, thus understating the disparity between White and African American arrests. 

Moreover, the report notes This failing renders San Francisco arrest statistics for Whites, Hispanics, and Asians largely useless, incomparable to state arrests, and slightly distorts state arrest totals.” Without these data there is no way to know how many Asian or Latino residents have contact with law enforcement. These discrepancies could have an impact on overall statewide arrest demographics. 

As California progresses with AB 109 realignment, accurate county data collection will be key to monitoring implementation of the reform’s underlying goals: to reduce the state prison population, reduce the cost of criminal justice interventions, and increase public safety. San Francisco County has proven to be a leader in the pursuit of those goals, and could provide valuable insight and support to other counties looking to improve their systems. However, without accurate data, San Francisco’s ability to provide concrete examples of its success is limited. 

In addition, San Francisco’s 2010 arrest numbers are severely underreported due to technical glitches with the system, which has yet to be corrected. According to the Bay Citizen article, the data collection system SFPD was installed in 1972. These figures have been inaccurately reported since data collection was implemented in San Francisco, yet must be relied upon by local, statewide, and national agencies. 

Accurate data collection is an important tool to provide governmental transparency and accountability. Practitioners use these data to evaluate and improve upon their internal practices; policy makers use these data to stay informed as they monitor the application of criminal justice policy and make decisions on key points of law; and communities use these data to understand the actual impact being made by the people they have elected to office. It is imperative that San Francisco County address the errors and inaccuracies inherent in its data collection system, both historically and currently, to provide real insight into its policies and practices.