by Shoshana Walter, The Bay Citizen
The San Francisco Police Department has underreported the arrest rates of the city's two largest minority groups for years, misclassifying Latino arrestees as "white" and Asian arrestees as “other," The Bay Citizen has learned.
The state has been publishing the erroneous statistics in a report called "Crime in California" since at least 1999, when the state Department of Justice first began posting the data online.
Because of the misclassifications, the department and federal and state officials have no accurate record of how often minorities are arrested in the city, creating skewed statistics and leading to widespread concern among local civil rights groups.
According to the reported data, African Americans are arrested at a much higher rate than whites. But by misclassifying Latinos, the department has inflated the number of whites arrested, indicating that the gap between the arrest rates for whites and blacks is even wider.
Over the years, concerns about racial profiling in the city’s African American and Latino communities have sparked city hearings and policy changes. Accurate, credible crime statistics were supposed to be a way to hold the department accountable. In 1999, the Police Commission ordered the police department to begin tracking racial data from all traffic stops. But disciplinary records show many officers still fail to fill out such tracking forms. And the misclassifications of Latino and Asian arrestees suggest other problems persist.
“This is just extremely troubling,” said Francisco Ugarte, senior immigration attorney at the San Francisco Immigrant Legal and Education Network. “If San Francisco is effectively unable to categorize those in the city being arrested, that would undermine our ability to monitor police practices – particularly in San Francisco, with such a huge Latino population.”
The Bay Citizen discovered the discrepancies after the California Department of Justice released the crime statistics for the year 2010 in June.
According to that report, 8,198 African Americans and 9,151 whites were arrested in San Francisco in 2010, along with 316 Hispanic adults and nine Hispanic juveniles. About 2,800 arrests are listed under “other.”
The Hispanic arrest figures included in the report come from other agencies in San Francisco, such as the California Highway Patrol, that have the authority to make arrests in the city but don't share the police department's antiquated computer system. Those numbers have fluctuated over the years, from a high of 705 Hispanic arrests in 2000 to a low of 283 Hispanic arrests in 2005.
San Francisco police commanders acknowledge that some of those statistics are incorrect.
“We have certainly made more than 300 arrests in the Hispanic community,” said Deputy Chief Lyn Tomioka. “I look at that number as a police officer and I can tell that it is inaccurate.”
Police officers mark whether an individual is Latino or Asian on arrest reports, but Tomioka and other department officials blamed an outdated computer system for the inaccuracies. Installed in 1972, the system lists three categories for identifying arrestees by race: blacks, whites and other. Although the department could calculate the numbers manually, officers have been identifying Latinos as “white” and Asians as “other” in the computer system for years.
“You're making it sound like officers choose to do this. It's what the system has available to the officers to put in,” Tomioka said.
She said she did not know when the department began misclassifying arrestees but said it does not plan on “looking back at those statistics."
The police department has no idea if any of the statistics it reports to the state are accurate, according to Susan Giffin, its chief technology officer.
“Not only can we not tell you if the numbers are right, we really can’t articulate what the problems are, or if there are problems,” Giffin said.
By law, the police department is required to report crime and arrest statistics to the California Department of Justice each month. The state attorney general's office and the FBI publish the data in their annual crime reports. The statistics also have been used in countless studies on racial disparities and trends in arrest rates.
When asked whether the Department of Justice expects law enforcement agencies to report accurate information to the state attorney general’s office, spokesman Nicholas Pacilio said the office had no comment.
Although California law states that the attorney general’s office is required to “periodically review” the numbers and “make recommendations for changes” on data collection techniques, the department could not provide the last date of its review by publication time.
The FBI did not respond to requests for comment.
San Francisco civil rights advocates said they were stunned to hear that the police department was misclassifying Latino and Asian arrestees as "white" and "other." African Americans make up 6 percent of the population but account for 40 percent of all arrests. According to the misclassified statistics, Latinos, who constitute 15 percent of the city’s population, account for 1.5 percent of all arrests. At nearly 36 percent, Asians have become the second-largest demographic group in San Francisco, behind whites. But the statistics reported under “other” provide no indication of how often Asians are arrested in the city.
“Oh, my goodness; I had no idea,” Lorena Melgarejo, director of community organizing at the Central American Resource Center, said of the police department’s misclassified arrests. “The police department says the community’s trust is very important to them. If they are underreporting numbers, they are basically making it impossible for us to understand what is really happening.”
Angela Chan, a member of the San Francisco Police Commission and an attorney with the Asian Law Caucus, said: “This data should and must be accurate."
“The fact that our technology is outdated is the reason for a lot of things,” she said. “If there’s an issue, it needs to be solved.”
The problem is just one of many related to the department's outdated technology. The San Francisco controller's office concluded in January that the police department’s public and internal crime reports frequently conflict with the reports the department sends to the FBI, not because of “underlying crime trends,” but because of “disparate data sources." Prior to 2010, when it hired Giffin as chief technology officer, the police department had spent close to $20 million on failed attempts to bring its technology up to date.
The controller's office is reviewing the department's technology issues at the request of Police Chief Greg Suhr. But its new crime data warehouse will do nothing to correct the arrest report errors, according to Giffin. The system is currently designed to house incident and crime reports, not arrest data.
Two years ago, Queens College sociology professor Harry Levine co-wrote a widely distributed study about discrepancies in marijuana arrests in California. He and other researchers found that Latinos were twice as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession as whites. But he did not include San Francisco in the analysis, he said, because the arrest rate for Latinos looked “a little screwy.”
Accurate data provides "a way of seeing who it is that is being systematically given preference or systematically excluded," Levine said. "In terms of making a fairer, more just, more equal world, it is good to know what powerful institutions are doing."
This story was produced by The Bay Citizen, a project of the Center for Investigative Reporting. Learn more at www.baycitizen.org.