While citizens demand answers for the police killings of unarmed men of color nationally, an everyday injustice continues unabated in San Francisco: the profiling of African American women.
It’s an insidious problem that’s garnered little attention in the newly invigorated civil rights movement. And it’s only getting worse. According a recent study by the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, black women, who make up only 6 percent of The City’s female population, account for nearly half the female arrests. To be a black woman in San Francisco means having an arrest rate 13 times higher than women of other races.
The new report also shows African American female motorists get pulled over for traffic offenses 17 times more often than white women. On March 31, Meseka Henry was one of them.
The San Francisco native and Muni driver was double parked in front of her apartment while dropping off her children. A patrol car flashed its lights, and Henry moved along. She and the officers ended up parallel at a light.
One of the officers appeared irritated, and motioned for her to roll down her window. She answered with similar exasperation.
“Why are you bothering me? Don’t you have some real police work to do?” she asked. It was dinnertime in the heart of the bustling Mission and she was looking for a place to park.
Officers pulled Henry over and asked for her license and registration. She asked why she was stopped. As the officer explained she had been blocking traffic earlier, she dug into her purse for her documents. But first, she pulled out a cell phone and told him she wanted to film the encounter. Then everything went south.
The officer’s partner rushed to her window and slapped the phone from her hand. He yanked her out by her hair, pulling off her weave and ripping out clumps of her hair beneath it. He slammed her to the ground and knelt on her temple. The pain was excruciating. She cried and begged to be handcuffed to make it stop. Officers searched her car, but found nothing illegal. The encounter ended with paramedics called and Henry facing a resisting arrest charge.
Too often, the public’s first reaction is to speculate on how the victim must have provoked her own brutalization. Did she comply quickly enough? Did she talk back? Use a sharp tone? Those who rationalize the use of excessive force may think they’re supporting police. On the contrary, such comments demonstrate a belief that highly trained officers are unable to control their emotions or act in a professional, measured matter. If a black eye seems a reasonable consequence for a law-abiding mother who dared to complain about a traffic stop, what does that say about the level of violence we are willing to accept from officers in more stressful situations?
Some may argue that African American women are detained and arrested more often because they commit more crimes. But this assertion doesn’t hold water when you examine drug arrests, which exhibit the most glaring racial disparity.
Of the women arrested on narcotics charges in San Francisco, 68 percent are black. Yet we know drugs don’t discriminate, because whites comprise 60 percent of San Francisco’s fatal drug overdoses. In addition, study after study has shown similar rates of drug use and sales among all racial groups. Not convinced by academic research? Simply drive through the Tenderloin and witness the broad diversity of drug dealers and addicts.
Police Chief Greg Suhr, while rightly acknowledging the racial discrimination that marred police enforcement in the past, is wrong when he states socioeconomic issues alone are responsible for today’s disproportionate number of African Americans behind bars. And socioeconomic issues do not explain why, according to the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, San Francisco’s arrest rate of black women is four times higher than anywhere else in California. Poverty alone cannot reconcile the fact that black teenage girls in San Francisco have arrest rates 50 times higher than their counterparts in other counties.
To reduce racial disparities, San Francisco needs more than an honest conversation about race. It needs both transparency and accountability. Police must keep ongoing and detailed statistics on the demographics of those who are pulled over, detained, searched, arrested or let off with a warning. While SFPD currently records some information on traffic stops, it is almost never analyzed or made available for public scrutiny. When it’s difficult to even gauge the severity of the problem, how can we begin to abate it?
Jeff Adachi is the elected public defender of San Francisco. His public affairs program, Justice Matters, can be seen on SFGOV-TV or at sfjusticematters.com.