Black people in San Francisco treated unfairly starting at booking stage: study

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If you’re black and live or work in San Francisco, it’s more likely that your case will take longer to resolve than for a white person, you’ll be convicted of a more serious crime than a white and you’ll receive a longer sentence than a white person.

And the reason for these “disparities,” is caused by two factors:  People of color receive more serious charges at the initial booking stage reflecting decisions made by the San Francisco Police Department and San Francisco County Sheriff’s Office;  and people of color have pre-existing racial differences in their criminal record, again, because of past encounters with police and deputies.

Those conclusions were released in a 29-page report called “Examining Racial Disparities in Criminal Case Outcomes among Indigent Defendants in San Francisco.” The study was conducted by the Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice, and written by three sociology and social welfare PhDs at the University of California at Berkeley, Irvine and Washington University.

As a response to the unflattering report, police spokesman David Stevenson emailed KTVU to say, “Our officers charge individuals based on the elements of the crime(s) present. The standard for an arrest is based upon probable cause. Whether a case moves forward or not depends on the District Attorney’s Office ability to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt.”

The study reviewed 10,753 case records from 2011 to 2014 from the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office. The hope of the study, the authors wrote, is that this information could help defense teams, the District Attorney and police ensure a more “equitable” treatment of all San Franciscans.

"I'm still afraid to walk the streets of San Francisco," said Leslie Elliott, a 65-year-old Tenderloin resident, who two SFPD officers charged with crimes she didn't commit because of the color of her skin, according to the Public Defender's office.

"[I'm] just nervous they're gonna take me and try to hurt me again," said Elliott.

Elliott faced six charges including mayhem, assault with a deadly weapon and great bodily injury.

"So when I get that police report and the 65-year-old woman is in [jail], what do I actually see? The weapon was a cup of coffee!" said Elizabeth Camacho of SF Public Defender's Office, who represented Elliott in court.

Camacho says her client spilled coffee on a woman by accident outside a laundromat. She believes Elliott is a prime example of what's wrong with the criminal justice system, as outlined in the study.

"The disparity in charging that occurs by the police officer at booking stage carries throughout the entire system," said SF Public Defender, Jeff Adachi, who commissioned the report. He said people of color, particularly blacks, are being charged with more serious crimes than whites.

"For example, if you're a person of color, instead of a theft charge, you may be charged with robbery," said Adachi.

The report suggests disparity is the worst in neighborhoods like the Bayview, the Tenderloin and the Mission.

Adachi says SFPD and the SFDA's Office have a lot to work to do.

"They would adamantly deny that racism is a factor in these decisions, however, the results of the study I think make that undeniable," said Adachi.

"We're never gonna hide under the covers," said Max Szabo, a spokesperson for the SF District Attorney's Office.

He disputes Adachi's interpretation of the study.

"The report that he's basing these allegations on actually says that they found no statistically significant evidence of the prosecutor's office either adding charges or in a way that suggests racial disparities," said Szabo.

As for Elliott, she says she was left with several bruises for resisting arrest, which is a misdemeanor. It's the only charge on which she was found guilty.

A tear dripped from her cheek as she admitted that she never got her laundry back that day.

"It's still in there. I'm afraid to go back to get it. It's on 6th Street."

Mayor Ed Lee tweeted on Tuesday about increased funding to expand pretrial diversion program and to improve behavioral health systems. 

The Public Defender's Office will launch a new pretrial unit in October to address booking issues before formal charges are brought.

They say they have to stop the disparity at the booking level before it snowballs.