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On January 23, 2013, the San Francisco Police Commission held a public hearing to discuss the city’s arrest data. The result was a refreshing openness to examining the city’s arrest trends for racial disparities and a willingness to work with independent researchers in the community.

SFPD’s redundant data collection system has plagued the Department since the 1970s, with many organizations calling for its replacement. After a data classification system overhaul last year, SFPD can now provide accurate information on the ethnicity of its arrestees – putting them back in line with the reporting quality of California’s 57 other counties. This move demonstrates a welcome shift in the Department towards a higher level of transparency and accountability.

Commissioner Suzy Loftus expressed the Police Commission’s commitment to pursuing a data-driven critical evaluation of SFPD practices during the hearing, explaining:

I think you hear from all of our colleagues, we’re really interested in data-driven policy, but it has to be accurate.”

This comes after a decade of community efforts to raise the issue. Studies show that prior to the mid-1990’s, San Francisco’s racial patterns in drug law enforcement roughly resembled those statewide. However, after 1995, San Francisco’s rate of drug felony arrests of African Americans increased dramatically; an increase that did not occur elsewhere in the state, nor for other racial categories in San Francisco. 

During the hearing, CJCJ presented historic arrest data demonstrating these uniquely disparate arrest trends that effect the San Franciscan African American population. To date, there has been no explanation for these trends. Despite public presentations and distribution of the studies to government officials, no concrete remedial action has been taken. However, this may all be about to change.

At the hearing, the response from the Commissioners and Police Chief Greg Suhr was encouraging. While they expressed reservations about the timeliness of the 2009 dataset (the most recent and complete publicly available data), all were interested in exploring the more recent and updated information to ascertain the current racial patterns in drug arrest practices. Commissioner Joe Marshall stated:

The question is being raised that there were more arrests of African Americans for drug sales [in San Francisco] as compared to other jurisdictions. It’s a legitimate question to ask why… It would seem that the immediate thing to do would be to see if those same disparities still exist. I think that would certainly be the next step.”

Chief Suhr indicated that SFPD would provide these critical new data to CJCJ to conduct the follow up analyses. Concrete data-driven success metrics would allow SFPD officials to demonstrate the purpose and effectiveness of policies in place, and monitor any unintended racial bias that may result. 

The SFPD’s willingness to collaborate with researchers and re-examine its policies through data collection is a promising and courageous decision. In an era of Realignment, criminal justice agencies must move towards an approach that utilizes data-driven methods to promote offender and system accountability.