SFPD Reforms Urged To Prevent Racial Profiling

Susan Sward, San Francisco Chronicle, April 4, 2007

The San Francisco Police Department needs to adopt broad reforms to avoid racial profiling or the perception of it, and it runs the risk of outside intervention if it does not do so, a national expert reported to Mayor Gavin Newsom on Tuesday.

Newsom hired criminologist Lorie Fridell to evaluate the department’s practices in December after The Chronicle reported that San Francisco arrests African Americans at a higher rate than any other major city in the state.

Fridell, a racial-profiling expert who is an associate professor at the University of South Florida, concluded that arrest disparities such as those found by The Chronicle cannot answer the question of whether policing in the city is racially biased.

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Statistics such as those reported in The Chronicle’s article have been sufficient to trigger Justice Department action in the past, she said.

Fridell also said “the potential of racial bias and the perceptions of it to impact negatively on trust and partnerships has particular relevance” in San Francisco because of the department’s long-standing efforts to increase community trust in its officers. “In San Francisco and elsewhere, decades of reform reflected in community policing are threatened by perceptions of racially biased policing and its practice,” she said.

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Fridell made 28 recommendations covering a wide range of the department’s operationsfrom recruitment to training to the leadership she said was required to make the department incorporate anti-bias approaches into its inner workings.

She recommended that those working for reform avoid concentrating on statistics that might show a disparity between racial or ethnic groups in terms of arrests. Her report said such statistics can draw attention away from the real challengeattempting to eradicate any vestige of racially biased policing.

While any department might find it has a handful of racist officers, she said, the broader problem is unconscious or implicit human bias, which in society often allows a “reactive rather than reasoned” linking of particular racial groups and crime.

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Fridell also urged a strengthening of department training and recruitment practices to increase officers’ understanding of and sensitivity to what constitutes racially biased policing.

She said she does not believe that racially biased policing can be measured precisely with crime statistics and population data.

In its story in December, The Chronicle reported that African Americans in San Francisco are arrested for felonies at nearly twice the rate in Sacramento and Fresno, three times the rate in San Jose, Los Angeles, Long Beach and San Diego, and four times the rate in Oakland. Examining factors that might explain in part San Francisco’s high arrest rate of African Americans relative to other major California cities, Fridell said it was hard to assess the validity of two reasons offered by the department to explain its high black arrest ratethat some criminals are drawn to the city because of its lax criminal justice system and that the police find themselves arresting the same people over and over.

She added, though, that one factor might explain in part the relatively high black arrest rate: “San Francisco is not only high in the rate at which it arrests African Americans, but also is relatively high in the rate at which the police department arrests non-African Americans.”

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Fridell was also direct about some shortcomings she found in the department’s operations relating to race, including the absence of a consistent system requiring officers to comply with a department requirement that they report on the race of every motorist they stop. She suggested that the city review whether this data-collection program should continue. If it does, the department should improve its operation, she said.

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Improving policing

Racial-profiling expert Lorie Fridell’s key recommendations:

Implement state-of-the-art practices aimed at “producing fully fair and impartial policing.”

Revamp police training to include material to help officers be aware of unconscious biases.

Develop new training for sergeants, lieutenants and field-training officers to give them tools to promote fair and impartial policing by those they supervise.

Revise background checks of police applicants to include exploration of the candidates’ attitudes toward and interactions with members of other racial or cultural groups.

Set up department-conducted focus groups around the city “with resident stakeholders” to discuss topics of mutual concern, including racially biased policing and perceptions of how it is practiced.

Create an advisory board to help Chief Heather Fong implement the reforms and hire a consultant to help push needed changes.

Have the chief regularly report to the Police Commission on the progress of the reforms.

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