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On Wednesday, September 12, 2012, the San Francisco Police Commission met to discuss a range of issues, including the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD)‘s faulty and problematic system of collecting arrest data. Recently highlighted by the Bay Citizen, San Francisco County is the only county of 58 in California that does not accurately report the arrests of Hispanic residents. CJCJ noted this data limitation in an April 2012 publication documenting a 40+ year pattern of racially discriminatory drug arrest trends in San Francisco. An upgrade to SFPD’s data collection system will remedy an error that has distorted statewide arrest totals by race and ethnicity for at least 35 years. 

The Police Department’s presentation (see video, at time index 14:35) on the data inaccuracies described a system fraught with inconsistent collection policies, out-dated technology, and a convoluted bureaucratic process for reporting to the Department of Justice (DOJ). Currently, arrest data in San Francisco is reported to DOJ via an external vendor. This external vendor collects arrest data from multiple different systems including SFPD, the Sheriff’s Department, UC Hastings, California Highway Patrol, and others. According to SFPD, the DOJ only requires reporting for 5 racial categories: White, Black, American Indian, Asian or Pacific Islander, and Unknown. In addition, it allows for reporting of 19 ethnicities (including Hispanic). 

While all 57 other counties report ethnicity information to DOJ, SFPD has failed to do so because their 40-year-old data collection system does not include that option. Thus, Commissioner Chan pointed out, Los Angeles reported 157,253 adult Hispanic arrests in 2010; Alameda reported 11,028; Santa Clara, 19,672; Stanislaus, a small rural county, 7,350; and San Francisco only 316 (reported by the Highway Patrol). This discrepancy severely obstructs transparency and accountability regarding San Francisco’s arrest practices. 

Law enforcement practitioners, investigative reporters, research and policy organizations, and the public all use this data to stay informed about SFPD practices. Local and state legislators rely upon accurate data collection to create policies that directly impact our communities. With the implementation of adult criminal justice realignment, there is an increased urgency to ensure that accurate and up-to-date data is being examined. In addition, revision of previous data is necessary to provide an accurate baseline for evaluating public safety measures under realignment. 

Further, CJCJ encourages Chief Suhr and the Police Commission to examine the data SFPD collects once the system has been upgraded (due to be completed in October 2012), and to analyze it in the context of police department policies and practices. If there are objective criminal justice goals and standards to justify the county’s racially disparate drug arrest trends, then local authorities would seem obligated to provide detailed explanation. This analysis could provide valuable insight into San Francisco’s approach to realignment, which largely involves low-level drug and drug-related property offenders. 

San Francisco should not be satisfied with minimally competent data collection. CJCJ supports the Police Department’s efforts to upgrade their data collection system to be in-line with the rest of California.