High Black Arrest Rate Raises Call for Inquiry

Susan Sward, San Francisco Chronicle, Dec. 17, 2006

San Francisco police arrest African Americans for serious crime at a much higher rate than officers in California’s other biggest cities.

Black people in San Francisco are arrested for felonies at nearly twice the rate they are in Sacramento. They are arrested at twice the rate of black people in Fresno, three times the rate in San Jose, Los Angeles, Long Beach and San Diego, and four times the rate in Oakland.

The disparity between San Francisco’s black felony arrest rates and the seven other largest cities’—measured by the number of African Americans arrested per 1,000 black residents—is so large that many experts and civic leaders who reviewed the numbers said they are “disturbing” and require an investigation.

The numbers prompt several questions, all of which basically boil down to this: Is the high arrest rate of African Americans because of the way the San Francisco Police Department does its policing, or because of criminal activity within the community?

Mayor Gavin Newsom and Police Chief Heather Fong said they do not think the department is going after African Americans in an unfair manner. They also said they were consulting experts to try to learn why the arrest numbers look the way they do.

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Fong’s staff said they hand-counted arrests made by the Tenderloin Task Force last year and found that more than 60 percent of the African Americans arrested were listed on booking cards as “no local”—a term often applied to transients—or gave addresses outside San Francisco. The department does not have similar data for other districts besides the Tenderloin, which police looked at because they believe many nonresidents are involved in drug dealing and other crimes there.

San Francisco officers arrest criminal suspects as they find them, not based on the color of their skin, Fong said.

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Sheriff Michael Hennessey, who runs the city’s jails and has tracked their racial composition for years, said his lockup population reflects the black arrest rate. “The disparity is just incredibly dramatic,” he said. “If you are an adult white male, your chances of being in my jail are 1 in 365, and if you are an adult black male, your chances are 1 in 23.”

The Chronicle began examining the city’s black felony arrest rate after its investigation of the department’s use of force, published in February, found officers were arresting African Americans and reporting use of force on them at rates about five times greater than their presence in the city’s population.

San Francisco police cited several factors they say contribute to African Americans accounting for about half of all felony arrests in the city, where they are less than 8 percent of the population. In 2005, 1 out of 3 arrests of black people involved narcotics.

Officers interviewed by The Chronicle said most of the dealers coming from out of town by BART or car to sell drugs—primarily crack cocaine and sometimes methamphetamine—are African Americans. Moreover, said Capt. Timothy Hettrich, head of the narcotics division, black drug dealers often sell out in the open on street corners, thus increasing their chances for arrest.

Fong also has said that some of the offenders are arrested time and again, thereby increasing the black arrest numbers.

Also, she said, the department has had to devote a lot of resources to combatting gangs of youths responsible for many of the city’s black-on-black homicides. William Whitfield, an African American officer who has worked in the department for more than a decade, said factors such as out-of-town criminals do affect arrests.

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‘Disturbing’ numbers

Many experts acknowledge that the factors Fong and her officers cite may contribute to the city’s black arrest rate. They also note that in cities throughout America, African Americans are arrested in numbers that exceed their presence in the population.

But they say the black arrest rate in San Francisco is so much higher than other California cities that the disparity cannot be explained completely by the factors cited by police.

“America’s criminal justice system disproportionately affects African Americans, and San Francisco is no exception,” said Bobb, the police practices expert. “What stands out in this city is the degree of disproportion, which is higher than what I’ve seen elsewhere on the West Coast.”

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James Bell, executive director of the San Francisco-based W. Haywood Burns Institute for Juvenile Justice Fairness and Equity, has been wrestling for years with Marshall’s question. About 60 percent of juveniles detained in the city are black.

“If you are an intelligent, caring person in San Francisco, you should be disquieted that in a supposedly liberal city, black youths are so much in the overwhelming majority among the detainees,” Bell said. “The numbers are just too disparate for anyone to credibly advance the ‘you-do-the-crime, you-do-the-time’ syndrome as an explanation. To believe these numbers, you’d have to believe that white kids in places like the Haight and the Sunset are basically doing no crime.”

Hettrich, who heads the narcotics division, says numbers don’t convey what police confront.

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“Color means nothing to us,” Hettrich said. “We are prejudiced against dealers.”

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Answers, not speculation

San Francisco’s high black arrest rate is not of recent origin: 20 years ago, San Francisco was making black felony arrests at a rate much higher than California’s seven other largest cities, state Justice Department reports show. In 1986, for example, San Francisco’s black felony arrest rate was almost 45 percent greater than Los Angeles’ and almost 51 percent higher than Oakland’s.

In the decades since then, San Francisco’s black felony arrest rate has climbed by more than 35 percent while the other seven major California cities’ rates have dropped—often by a considerable amount. During those 20 years, Los Angeles’ black felony arrest rate dropped by more than 36 percent and Oakland’s declined by more than 52 percent.

When evaluating why San Francisco’s black arrest numbers are so different from the other cities’, Bobb said speculation is not productive.

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A second review was conducted at The Chronicle’s request by Samuel Walker, a criminal justice professor emeritus from the University of Nebraska, Omaha, who has consulted with the U.S. Justice Department on matters ranging from police use of force to questions of race-based civil rights violations by police agencies.

Walker concluded that San Francisco police are targeting black people in their law enforcement efforts. To him, the numbers indicate that “many law-abiding citizens” are confronted by officers “solely because of their skin color.”

“No other factor than race could possibly explain the San Francisco arrest data given the fact that they are so far out of line compared with other departments,” Walker said.

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Sheriff Hennessey said the problem does not just lie with the police.

“I think this is a reflection of institutionalized racism: You are more likely to get arrested for the same act if you’re black, you are more likely to be retained in jail for the same crime if you are black, and society is more likely to care less about your incarceration if you are black,” Hennessey said.

Officers in the department said they go where the crime and violence is happening.

Mikail Ali and Toney Chaplin, African American inspectors in the gang task force, said police concentrate their efforts on areas where violence is occurring.

“African American youth are shooting each other at a rate far greater than other groups, so we try to get those kids on some charge if we can’t get them on a homicide,” Chaplin said. Ali added: “Social neglect by the community, government and business have caused environments populated predominantly by black people to be conducive to crime and violence, and law enforcement ends up having to deal with the bottom line—young black kids killing one another at a disproportionate rate.”

The community perception

Chief Fong says officers are taught to treat all citizens equally. Police Academy recruits are given 52 hours of training—more than twice the state requirement—on discrimination and cultural diversity as it relates to African Americans, and other races and segments of society, including gays and lesbians, seniors and the homeless.

But in San Francisco’s black neighborhoods, many believe police give them special attention.

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Guy Hudson, who works two jobs as a city athletics coach and as a security guard, knows many of the kids in black neighborhoods all over town, and he said that many black people believe they often can “talk things over” with police in San Francisco when that wouldn’t work in Oakland, Santa Clara or Daly City.

Even so, Hudson says, it’s a reality that police focus on black people in San Francisco. He recalls the time three officers stopped him in Hunters Point after he “drove down a hill a little fast” and they emerged from their car “pointing guns at my head.”

Hudson, 42, said he asked them, “Out in the avenues, would you be jumping out of your car with an automatic machinegun?”

The police eventually let him go. Before they drove off, Hudson said, one of them told him that someone recently had fired shots at an officer on Harbor Road. Hudson said he responded: “That gives you the right to pull pistols on everyone in the community?”

Police Commissioner Marshall, who is African American, wrote a book, “Street Soldier,” in which he described the deep-seated antipathy black people hold for police. “There’s not a black person I know who doesn’t see the police as an occupying force in the community. At the same time, though, I’m convinced that if black folks stopped blowing each other’s brains out, they’d be in a much better position to deal with police issues.”

However, there are African Americans who approve of the way officers conduct themselves in their neighborhoods.

Al Harris, who lives in the Ingleside and works as an organizer for the Safety Network group, which is funded by the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, says police often have to confront a “pretty rough world—you go into neighborhoods and you’re hated. In some neighborhoods, it’s instilled from when kids are little that the police are the enemy.”

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Asked about whether it appears that police are targeting black people for arrest, Harris said: “Definitely not. There’s no need to target the African American kids. They’re the ones out on the streets selling the drugs.”

Earlier study

The numbers revealing the high arrest rate of black people in the city are not the first statistical indication that African Americans get special police attention.

In 2002 the American Civil Liberties Union issued a report, “A Department in Denial: The San Francisco Police Department’s Failure To Address Racial Profiling,” which found black motorists were more than three times as likely to be searched as whites after a traffic stop.

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Search for explanation

Looking at the 2000 U.S. census to try to find possible reasons for the arrest rate, The Chronicle found some similarities and some differences between San Francisco and the seven other cities.

Like black residents of those other cities, San Francisco African Americans’ median household income lags considerably behind that of the city’s total population, and their level of education is also typically years behind that of the total population.

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A second difference involved unemployment numbers. While African Americans in all the cities had high unemployment numbers, only in San Francisco was their unemployment rate—6.2 percent—more than double that of the rest of the population.

Need for investigation

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She added that the department’s efforts to analyze its arrest record are made difficult by the fact its record keeping system is being overhauled and she can’t “go to a computer right now and pull up arrest data with all this information you have spoken about.”

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The mayor added that as he has worked to push programs tackling concentrated poverty in the city, such as a tax credit for working families, he has concluded “the issues of crime for me are overwhelmingly correlated with issues of poverty.”

Newsom added that Fridell, the University of South Florida associate professor of criminology selected by the city to review its arrest data, was picked in part because she has special expertise in the area of racial profiling.

One way or another, San Francisco has to discover why it is arresting black citizens at a higher rate than the other California cities, said Bobb, the Los Angeles police practices expert.

What is at stake is the concept of equal treatment under the law, he said.

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Walker, the law enforcement expert who has consulted for the Justice Department, says the San Francisco Police Department “should be looking at its own operation to see if there’s anything it could be doing differently.”

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Jack Jacqua, who founded the Omega Boys Club with Marshall, said the policing of black people in San Francisco is a problem for the city and its leaders.

While he acknowledged that police have “the most dangerous, difficult job in America,” he said they “most times treat poor kids from the hood differently than they do more affluent kids.”

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It works this way, Jacqua said: If a kid shoplifts in the Sunset District, police are probably going to call Mom and Dad and have them take their child home. “But if you shoplift downtown and your address is in the Bayview, then they will take you to jail.”

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