• September 24, 2023

S.F. Police Commission bans pretextual traffic stops to reduce racial bias

The San Francisco Police Commission voted 4-2 late Wednesday night to approve a controversial measure that will limit pretexual traffic stops and aims to help reduce racial bias in policing.

The ban, which was first drafted in May, will restrict police officers from conducting “pretextual” traffic stops — when officers pull people over for minor infractions, such as expired registration tags or a broken taillight, as a way to probe for possible criminal activity.

Advocates of the change in policy, including the commission, have pointed to data showing that such stops cost significant police time and money, seldom prevent crime and disproportionately target people of color. Supporters say pretextual stops are a vital investigative tool that also provide basic traffic enforcement.

The process from the time the policy was first drafted to when it was voted on wasn’t without drama. In early December, commissioners revised the number of stops that would be banned from 14 to 9, after feedback from members of the public, safety experts and academics. The commission was slated to vote on the policy Dec. 14 meeting but President Cindy Elias pushed to move the vote, saying additional perspectives must first be considered.

Wednesday’s meeting quickly turned from cordial to contentious as soon as the proposal was brought to debate. While it was clear from the get-go that Commissioners Kevin Benedicto, Jesus Yanez, Vice President Max Carter-Oberstone and Elias would vote in favor of the policy, Commissioners Jim Byrne, Larry Yee and Debra Walker expressed multiple concerns.

Yee alleged that the commission had failed to reach out to certain Asian advocacy organizations in the city, and said the Chinese community was left out of the conversation. “Absolutely there are racial disparities on the stops for the Blacks but you need to reach out to our (Chinese) community,” Yee said.

Walker followed by later expressing concerns about certain language that was included in the proposal and sought clarification from Chief William Scott on language he wanted to be added in order for him to feel more comfortable about the policy.

Byrne sought multiple times to delay the vote on the policy. Byrne said he wanted the opportunity for members of the police union to come before the commission and speak about the policy, saying “that’s what democracy is all about.” Byrne also added he wanted more time for members of the commission and the public to read a complete draft, rather than continuing to amend the proposal if it was passed. “Something this important can wait 10 more days, it’s waited 8 months,” Byrne exclaimed.

Carter-Oberstone, an early champion of the policy since its inception, said limiting pretextual stops would allow the city to re-allocate law-enforcement resources to other areas while increasing equality. “It’ll allow us to make headway on our moral and constitutional obligation to treat people equally under the law regardless of background,” he said.

A Chronicle analysis of data from SFPD stops that occurred between July 2018 and June 2022, showed that Black people were 10.5 times more likely to be pulled over in a pretexual stop than white people. The data also showed that during that same time period, Black people were 4.4 times more likely to be pulled over for any traffic violation by San Francisco Police compared to white people.

San Francisco isn’t the first city to consider such a proposal. Cities including Los Angeles, Berkeley, Washington D.C. and Philadelphia have each passed measures banning pretexual stops, although the policies vary. In Los Angeles, city officials barred pretextual stops but do not prohibit officers from pulling people over for minor violations; they just can’t use those infractions to fish for other crimes.

An overwhelming majority of public speakers, which included residents, the Bar association, members of the coalition to end bias stops, and the ACLU, spoke in support of passing the proposal during the meeting.

“To not enact this policy would be enacting data-based oppression on Black and brown people,” one resident said.

William Palmer, editor in chief of SF Bay View, San Francisco’s Black newspaper, recalled a past experience about being pulled over by a police officer while still on parole, which he said was trauma-triggering. Palmer said that because he was on parole, the officer handcuffed him and put him on the curb while he searched his car. “For people who have never been on parole, never been incarcerated, never had someone pull over and want to delay this for another week or two, it’s not that easy for us. It could be our lives,” he said.

Mayor London Breed is considered a general supporter of the policy, she told the Board of Supervisors late last year, but expressed opposition to a part of the proposal that would ban police from pulling drivers over for nine low-level traffic infractions, saying it was the job of the legislature to change traffic laws, not an un-elected commission.

“This is intelligence-based policing and other jurisdictions like Los Angeles have done this, yielding positive early results, and I believe it can work for San Francisco. This is about implementing reforms while still maintaining public safety,” Breed said in December.

In December, a state committee that includes four appointees of Gov. Gavin Newsom as well as two state legislators, said that California should ban police from stopping drivers for reasons that are unconnected to traffic safety. The committee said that stops forviolations related to license plates, lighting or vehicle registration, serve little public purpose and have “disturbing racial disparities.”

Jordan Parker (he/him) is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: [email protected]. Twitter: @jparkerwrites.

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