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Accuracy of SFPD race data in question amid misconduct case

San Francisco Police Chief Bill Scott listens at a City Hall meeting on Thursday, July 27, 2023. | Source: Jeremy Chen/The Standard

The U.S. Department of Justice warned San Francisco police nearly seven years ago to watch for officers who might intentionally misreport the races of drivers they pull over.

But as a misconduct case casts doubt on the accuracy of its stop data, the San Francisco Police Department revealed Wednesday that it barely audits the information that its officers are required by state law to collect on every person they stop with the aim of curbing racial profiling.

The department only checks to see if an officer who began an entry in the stop database finished submitting the information, said Catherine McGuire, executive director of the SFPD’s Strategic Management Bureau.

This is despite internal rules—designed to ensure the public can trust SFPD to hold itself accountable—requiring the department to regularly audit its stop data for "inconsistent" entries by officers.

“At this time, we just don't have the capacity to go beyond that,” McGuire said at the weekly Police Commission meeting. “The laudable goals at the very beginning of the [internal rules] are something that we strive for.”

McGuire said only one sergeant, whose plate is “overly full,” is assigned to the unit in charge of the audits. The department is facing a staffing shortage.

The revelation troubled members of the Police Commission, which had asked the department to share details about its stop data audits in light of an emerging controversy over officers misreporting data.

As far back as 2016, when the U.S. Department of Justice came forward with extensive recommendations for reforming the SFPD, the department was told to consider partnering with outside experts to analyze its stop data. One thing to look out for, the federal government said, was officers who might misrepresent facts to make themselves look better.

“It looks like SFPD has buried its head in the sand and decided that it's not going to even look in the first instance to know if there is a problem with the data,” said Max Carter-Oberstone, Police Commission vice president. “Do we even want to know the answer? Do we want to know if our data is accurate and reliable, or do we want to just not even take the time to look at it at all?”

Last Wednesday, The Standard first reported that an officer was found to have committed misconduct by repeatedly entering the wrong races of people he stopped into the database, even when he got their races right in police reports. The officer tended to do this when it came to one particular race, an investigation by the Department of Police Accountability found, though the department did not reveal which race that was.

The Standard also reported that problems with the stop data may go beyond one officer. The analysis found that one sergeant, for example, reported in the state database that all but six of the 1,139 people he stopped were white.

After the issue was raised at the Police Commission last week, the director of the Department of Police Accountability, Paul Henderson, confirmed that his office had identified ways officers are inaccurately or improperly reporting stop data, including by reporting that a single individual belonged to multiple races to “obscure any obvious or specific racial makeup.”

Under state law, officers are required to record the perceived races of people they stop. They have to choose between a set of seven specific racial groups and have no option to mark “unknown” or “other.” Officers are told to check the box for all races that apply to an individual.

At the hearing Wednesday, called in response to the investigation by the Department of Police Accountability and reporting by The Standard, Police Chief Bill Scott acknowledged that his department does not have the “capacity” to do more extensive reviews of the stop data.

“We can and will do better on these things,” Scott said. “But we do have to build the capacity in order to do that.”

Still, Scott pushed back on the notion that it was a red flag for a sergeant to report only a handful of the more than 1,000 people he stopped were nonwhite.

“These audits have to be based on something more tangible than a hunch,” he said.

The chief worried that an expanded audit, if done the wrong way, would serve as a “wet blanket” for officers wanting to do their job. He said officers should not feel like they are being subject to a “witch hunt.”

“We're not saying don't hold officers accountable,” Scott said. “What I'm saying is the process needs to be fair.”

But Commissioner Jesus Yáñez said it was “unfathomable” that a sergeant reported stopping only a few nonwhite people out of more than 1,000.

“It just sounds like we're not serious about accountability and transparency,” Yáñez said. “And unfortunately, it's overwhelmingly people of color who are being impacted by these decisions.”

The discussion came after commissioners encouraged officers to make more traffic stops following a precipitous decline in ticketing during the pandemic.

That led both Scott and Commissioner Debra Walker to accuse the commission of putting officers in a difficult position by asking them to step up their productivity while at the same time criticizing their data collection.

Walker said the commission is giving officers “conflicting directions.”

“It's a wonder that anybody pulls anybody over at all,” she said. “If I was a police officer, I would kind of wonder what I'm supposed to do at any given point.”

The Police Commission is expected to hold another hearing to consider ordering an audit of the department’s stop data at a later date. So far, Commissioners Carter-Oberstone, Yáñez and Kevin Benedicto have expressed interest in an audit.

Benedicto said the department should lead on the issue in light of stop data corruption scandals unfolding in other jurisdictions, such as Connecticut, where more than 100 state troopers may have falsified traffic stops.

“What we're talking about isn't little mistakes or disparities,” Benedicto said. “We're talking about potential fraudulent entry that is misconduct.”