July 6, 2020


For today’s Critical Issues Report, PERF Executive Director Chuck Wexler interviewed San Francisco Police Chief Bill Scott about two issues:

  • Chief Scott’s recent announcement that SFPD would not be releasing booking photos unless the individual is a risk to public safety, or is at risk.  For example, if a person is being sought for a serious crime and the department has a booking photo of the person on file from a previous offense, the photo may be released.
  • San Francisco’s plan to use entities other than the police department to respond to non-criminal calls


Limiting the release of booking photos

Chuck Wexler: You recently announced that SFPD will only release mugshots of people who pose a threat to the public. Why are you making this change?

Chief Bill Scott: We have been involved in a collaborative reform initiative that started with the U.S. Department of Justice in 2016. They assessed the SFPD top to bottom and issued more than 90 findings. One of the categories was bias, including disparities in our stop rates and arrest rates. There were many, many recommendations about reducing bias, with the goal of reducing those disparities.

One of the recommendations was to forge partnerships with academic institutions to research these issues. On the issue of bias, we forged really good relationships with local academic partners, including professors from Stanford and UC Berkeley.

Until yesterday, our policy was to release booking photos upon request by media or others, unless it jeopardized an investigation. For example, releasing a booking photo might jeopardize an identification in a photographic lineup, or it could put somebody in danger. But otherwise, we pretty freely released the booking photos.

Our academic partners shared the decades of work on bias, and how releasing booking photos impacts people’s thinking. Because these booking photos are broadcast over mass media, they affect how people formulate beliefs about certain groups of people based on what they see.

If you see a lot of images of African-American men posted on social media or news websites associated with crime, that can have an impact on whether people, including police officers, create stereotypes. The science tells us that stereotypes are a big part of bias.

We are now greatly restricting the release of these photos. There are only two conditions under which we’ll now release photos: if that person is a threat to community safety, or if the person is at risk. Those are the only two conditions when we’ll release photos.

For example, last year we had a man who committed a murder in Oakland, came across to San Francisco, committed one murder and attempted another, then went back across the bay to Berkeley and committed another murder, all in one day. He was on a killing spree. We were involved in a massive investigation to find this guy, who was obviously a very real threat to the community. In that type of situation, if we have a booking photo of the suspect from a past offense, we will absolutely release it. That’s an imminent threat to the community.

There are two overarching goals:

  • One is to reduce the stereotyping that we believe the release of booking photos perpetuates.
  • The second is that the criminal justice system is founded on the principle of “innocent until proven guilty.” Community groups and advocates had real concerns about a person whose photo is released, and charges are later dismissed or the person is exonerated. Those photos are still out there forever. So how does that harm that person down the line, particularly with the internet, where things never go away?

It’s one step, and I think it’s a significant step. I know other departments may have similar policies, but I don’t know if anyone else is doing it for the same reasons. We really want to do what we can to not perpetuate stereotyping.

Wexler: What has been the reaction in the community and the department?

Chief Scott: So far the community has been supportive. But we’re taking away something that people are used to having. In the past we’ve distributed booking photos and had them on our website and social media pages. People are used to seeing that, so I have heard concerns from people who want to know who’s being arrested for crimes in their neighborhood. So that is out there.

Internally, I haven’t heard pushback, but the policy was just issued.

The people I’ve worked with on this policy understand the dynamics and what we’re trying to do. We have to turn around the disparity issue in our city. The arrest rates and stop rates of African-Americans and Hispanics, particularly men, are out of proportion. We hope over time that these types of steps will change that narrative.


Changing the response to non-criminal calls

Wexler: On a different issue, San Francisco recently announced that police would no longer be sent to non-criminal calls. I know that plan is still developing, but how might that work?

Chief Scott:  It’s a work in progress right now in terms of identifying the types of calls that would be appropriate for a non-police response. For example, looking at our data from last year, we had a little over 39,000 calls that were related to homelessness. For some calls, a police response was appropriate. But for some calls, like a welfare check for someone who is lying on the sidewalk, are we the best resource to deal with that situation? What about a tent blocking the sidewalk? We get a lot of those types of calls.

We have other entities in the city and county of San Francisco that could respond, like our Department of Public Health. We have clinicians who can respond to those types of calls. Many of the people we encounter have mental health issues. We also have a Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, which has a Homeless Outreach Team.

The question is about the capacity of those teams and the capacity of that infrastructure. Police are available 24/7, and at 11 p.m., when many of the public health folks are at home, police get the call. So we do have an infrastructure we can tap into, but we need to build capacity and improve that infrastructure.

Another example:  We have officers at SFPD who respond to vicious animal calls. The city has animal control outside the police department, but they’re lightly staffed, so we’ve been taking those calls for years. Many of those calls are better suited for animal control officers.

For some of our neighbor disputes, are there other entities that can respond to low-level neighbor disputes? Maybe mediation teams can be called in.

Wexler:  Would a 3 a.m. call about loud music be the type of call you would have a non-police unit respond to?

Chief Scott:  Potentially, yes. If it’s a disturbance of the peace, that technically is a penal code violation. We’re not saying that those things aren’t necessarily penal code violations, but the question is whether these calls can be effectively handled by a non-police agency. We have many of those types of calls, and some of those can be better handled by other agencies.

Right now, our infrastructure is limited, so we’re going to keep responding until we figure that out.

Here are some other issues we’re thinking about:

  • We have a parking control department that is not part of the police department, and has unarmed employees. They may be able to handle parking violations, traffic congestion, driveway tows, abandoned vehicles, and some vehicle alarms.
  • A lot of schools, including the school district here, are saying they don’t want police in the schools. Are there other entities, including community-based organization, that can play a role there?
  • Juveniles who are beyond their parents’ control but are not committing criminal violations. We had 362 of these calls in 2019. Is that call better suited for public health or another entity that deals with juveniles? We have some really good community-based organizations that do that type of work.
  • Our transportation agency doesn’t have their own armed officers, so SFPD responds to calls on bus and train lines. They do have unarmed security, so can they handle some calls? That change is already in the works.
  • We still get trash dumping calls. Is that better suited for public works?
  • Complaints about dogs that are vicious or barking or off-leash could be handled by animal control, or a park ranger if it’s a dog off-leash in a park.
  • As I mentioned before, the biggest category is homelessness-related calls. As we build capacity, there’s room for others to pick up the lift on a lot of those calls. And many residents of San Francisco, though not all, are calling for that type of change. 


The PERF Critical Issues Report is part of the Critical Issues in Policing project, supported by the Motorola Solutions Foundation.


PERF also is grateful to the Howard G. Buffett Foundation for supporting this work.

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