SFPD responds (weirdly) to allegations of racial disparity

Pub date June 5, 2013
WriterRebecca Bowe
SectionPolitics Blog

The San Francisco Police Department has issued a head-scratching response to charges of racial disparity in marijuana arrests, possibly in an attempt to defuse controversy over a recent incident that already has some members of the African American community up in arms.

This latest flap started Monday, when the New York Times ran a piece about an American Civil Liberties Union analysis finding that nationwide, Black Americans were four times more likely to be arrested than white people on charges of marijuana possession in 2010.

On Tuesday, the East Bay Express drew attention to that report. Then, the Chronicle ran a story suggesting that racial disparity in marijuana arrests extends to San Francisco – a city where white people have such affinity for weed that they’re known to congregate in droves not only on Hippie Hill but also Dolores Park to commemorate 4/20 with collective puffs of smoke.

The Chronicle piece seizes on 2010 data to back up its claim, noting:

“Black residents made up 6 percent of San Francisco’s population in 2010 while whites comprised 55 percent. The ACLU report said that of 298 marijuana possession arrests that year, 99 were black suspects and 195 were white suspects.” This would appear to suggest that a disproportionate number of Black suspects were arrested for marijuana possession. The Chron also pointed out, “the ACLU’s report analyzed arrest data from 2001 through 2010.”

Earlier today, the SFPD issued a response, apparently attempting to set the local press straight. It states: “This is not so. The San Francisco Police Department does not racially profile.”

To back up its claim, officers in the SFPD’s Media Relations Unit wrote: 

“In 2011, the SFPD made over 23,000 arrests, of which 14,000 were classified as misdemeanors. Today, Chief [Greg] Suhr reviewed all 11 misdemeanor marijuana arrest reports from 2011. All 11 misdemeanor marijuana charges were secondary to other charges, e.g., outstanding warrants, weapons possession, drunk in public, for which the person (four white males, three black males, two black females, one Hispanic male, and one white female) were arrested and booked. It is evident that the misdemeanor marijuana arrests cited in the article were made using sound police procedure pertaining to criminal activity and not by racial profiling.”

But this response fails to address the ACLU’s findings head on. If the New York Times and Chronicle pieces specifically hinged on 2010 figures, why did Suhr review data from 2011? The only hint comes in the SFPD statement, which notes that 2011 “was Chief Suhr’s first year as chief.”