High arrest rate of blacks in SF debated 

click to enlarge The high rate of black arrests in SF has raised concerns among public officials and activists. - MIKE KOOZMIN/SF EXAMINER FILE PHOTO
  • Mike Koozmin/SF Examiner file photo
  • The high rate of black arrests in SF has raised concerns among public officials and activists.
San Francisco police arrest black people at an alarming rate despite their low population in The City, but why that is remains up for debate.

The issue is now raising the hackles of some because of an environment of heightened racial awareness locally after a scandal involving police officers who allegedly sent bigoted texts to one another.

In April, the department released data showing police arrest more blacks than any other race. That data was taken as proof by some that, no matter how progressive The City’s police, racial bias affects cops here, too.

In 2014, black people accounted for 44 percent of all police arrests, according to the department. The City’s black population stands at roughly 6 percent, according to 2013 numbers. Meanwhile, 32 percent of all arrests in 2014 were whites who made up about 42 percent of The City’s population.

The department says many of the people arrested for street-level crime are black because they are committing more of the crime. But others argue blacks are arrested more despite data showing they don’t commit more crime than other racial groups.

The department intentionally didn’t compare population numbers with the rate of arrests because The City’s population swells each day. Instead, they compared suspect descriptions to arrests. In most cases, the numbers matched up.

Police Chief Greg Suhr wrote on the black arrest rate in a column in the April issue of the San Francisco Police Officers Association newsletter.

“Police officers on patrol in our nation’s cities often work in environments where a hugely disproportionate percentage of street crime is committed by young men of color,” Suhr wrote. He added working in such areas can cause cynicism and lazy mental shortcuts that stereotype certain people. But, he added, that doesn’t explain why disproportionate numbers of people of color are arrested.

“Does this happen because the officer is racist?” Suhr wrote. “Why are there so many black men in jail? Is it because cops, prosecutors, judges, and juries are racist? Do they turn a blind eye to white robbers and drug dealers? I don’t think so. If it were so, that would be easier to address. We would just need to change the way we hire, train, and measure law enforcement and that would fix it. We would then go get those white thugs we have been ignoring.”

His explanation was socioeconomic, blaming arrests and crime on class rather than systemic racism.

“Many minority families and communities are struggling, so many boys and young men grow up in environments lacking role models, adequate education, and decent employment — they lack all sorts of opportunities,” Suhr wrote. “A tragedy of American life — one that most citizens are able to drive around because it doesn’t touch them.” But others disagree, pointing out that arrest rates don’t match up with what statistics say about those who commit crimes.

Marion Jackson, a member of Officers For Justice, a mostly black police officers association, said it’s well-known that whites use drugs at a higher rate than blacks, but are arrested less for the same crime.

Recently, Public Defender Jeff Adachi pointed out most drug arrests in The City were of black people — 46 percent in 2014 according to the police — but of the 2,000 overdose deaths in San Francisco, 60 percent where white.

Jackson said the contention that black people commit more crime is absurd. The department’s use of suspect descriptions to justify the high arrest rates of blacks is equally specious, he said.

“When you say ‘black suspect’ that could be anybody,” Jackson said. Adachi, who said these numbers are “wildly unproportional,” has pointed out other examples of the unfair justice system: 56 percent of County Jail inmates are black, more than 50 percent of inmates in juvenile hall are black and black people are three times as likely to be pulled over in a traffic stop in San Francisco as whites.

“It won’t change until we truly get community policing,” said Jackson, who noted that blacks are arrested at such rates because police act like an occupying force in their neighborhoods and don’t know the community or its culture.

About The Author

Jonah Owen Lamb

Jonah Owen Lamb

Bio:
Born and raised on a houseboat in Sausalito, Lamb has written for newspapers in New York City, Utah and the San Joaquin Valley. He was most recently an editor at the San Luis Obispo Tribune for nearly three years. He has written for The S.F. Examiner since 2013 and covers criminal justice and planning.
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