Feds report racial disparities in SFPD searches, traffic stops

A U.S. Department of Justice report released Thursday found racial disparities in traffic stops and searches, problems in the handling of use of force incidents and a lack of transparency or analysis of office discipline cases in the San Francisco Police Department, among other issues.

The report, produced by the department’s Community Oriented Policing Services division, includes 94 findings and makes 272 recommendations in key areas including use of force, bias, community policing practices, accountability and recruitment and personnel practices.

“The report makes clear the significant challenges that lie ahead for the police department and The City,” COPS Director Ronald Davis said, noting that the assessment found deficiencies in every area assessed.

However Davis also praised the city’s leadership for its willingness to undertake the review in the first place, and for its commitment to reform.

The voluntary COPS review was launched in February at the request of Mayor Ed Lee and former police Chief Greg Suhr in the wake of revelations of racist text messages exchanged among officers, police corruption cases prosecuted in federal court and controversy over police shootings including the December death of Mario Woods.

Mayor Ed Lee and interim Police Chief Toney Chaplin today vowed to implement the recommended reforms, while also noting that the city was already working to implement reforms including a revised use of force policy, body cameras and training for officers in implicit bias and crisis intervention.

Chaplin said the department intended to become the “leading law enforcement agency in this country,” and would use the report as a “road map to reform”:

“I’m proud to report that the San Francisco Police Department will accept and implement every single recommendation. … We must restore trust, and these measures are important steps forward. … This past year has not been easy for any of us, not this department or this country. … But this climate has also made it clear that it is not enough to do the normal, we need to do our job differently, better.”

Allegations of racial bias in the department have been a particularly sensitive topic. Davis today said that while there was evidence that blacks and Hispanics were stopped and searched more often by police and that most fatal use of force incidents involved people of color, there was not sufficient data to clarify what caused the disparities. The report also found that minorities were not subjected to higher or more severe levels of force.

The leadership of the San Francisco Police Officers Association has repeatedly denied that racial bias is a problem in the department, and Martin Halloran, the union’s president, Thursday noted that the report found no proof of racial bias by officers or the agency.

Halloran said that while the union is not claiming the department has no problems, the report:

“… contradicts the allegations coming from our harshest critics, who have unfairly painted San Francisco’s finest as Jim Crow-era police officers from the Deep South.”

Halloran noted that the report recommends the use of Tasers, a practice supported by the union but opposed by many community advocates.

However, the report also calls for banning the use of the carotid hold, a type of “choke hold” used to subdue suspects, and shooting at moving cars, positions opposed by union leadership.

Davis today said his department “will not waver” on those positions.

The report’s release Thursday comes shortly before Mayor Ed Lee is widely expected to announce the appointment of a new permanent police chief.

Chaplin, who was appointed as interim chief in May following the abrupt resignation of Suhr, is considered a favorite for the position.

While the COPS report is not legally binding, Davis today noted that his office will continue to work with the city over the next 18 months to implement the reforms it outlines.

Copies of the report will be made available in three languages at local libraries, and it is available online at www.cops.usdoj.gov. Public comments can be submitted for the next 30 days at SanFrancisco.CRITA@usdoj.gov.