The San Francisco Police Commission unanimously passed an anti-bias policy on Wednesday night in an effort to curb racial profiling and biased policing in the San Francisco Police Department. 

The anti-bias policy will now be pored over by the San Francisco Police Officers Association and will be up for a final vote at a later date. The commission vote was 5-0, with two unfilled commission seats. 

But as it stands, the anti-bias policy represents sweeping new changes. Notably, during stops — any time a person does not feel free to leave an officer’s presence — officers must identify themselves by name and rank, and state the reason the officer has stopped them, before asking for a person’s driver’s license and registration. In these instances, an officer must provide, in written form, the officer’s name, rank, star number, and information on how to file a complaint or commendation. 

The anti-bias policy “touches on every part of the work that the SFPD does,” said San Francisco Public Defender Mano Raju during public comment. He said he supported the policy, and that “rooting out and eliminating bias should and must be a top priority” for the police department. 

In recent years, the SFPD has been dogged by incidents of racial bias, including multiple racist texting scandals and recent accusations of “anti-black” sentiment among officers. Persistent statistics show rank-and-file officers disproportionately stop, search, and use force on people of color. 

The “Bias-Free Policing Policy,” which was last updated in 2011, was years in the making – a meticulous collaborative effort between community members, police officers, and criminal law experts in a working group formed in the wake of the US Department of Justice report released in October 2016 that found “numerous indicators of implicit and institutionalized bias against minority groups” within the SFPD. 

“This was a herculean effort and we really dug in and drilled down and did a lot of good, impactful work,” said commission Vice President Damali Taylor who, with Commissioner Cindy Elias, served as an intermediary between civilians and police officers during the frequent working group meetings held at SFPD headquarters over the last year. “I want to thank everyone who is part of that process.” 

The policy also instructs officers to be cognizant of “bias by proxy” — meaning when a civilian racially profiles a person and calls the police as a result, as in the case of a lemonade store owner on Valencia Street in July 2018, who was mistaken for a burglar.  “Members should use their critical decision-making skills, drawing upon their training, to assess whether there is criminal conduct,” in these instances, according to the policy.

The policy also lays out training to effectively implement the policy, including education around bias, prejudices, the history of discriminatory policing practices, and the obligations of police officers in preventing and reporting instances of biased or racist behavior in the department. It would add to the SFPD’s existing bias training. 

It’s been a long time coming,” said Julie Traun, a member of the San Francisco Bar Association, during public comment. 

Traun has been a participant on the working group since it kicked off in 2017. Although she was happy with the policy, she said “scenario-based training” on implicit bias and racial profiling was missing from the policy. 

Many of us have attended a lot of the bias training with the police department,” she said. “And I think that having a partnership with the police department and including officers to make it relevant to other officers is very critical.” 

Nevertheless, Angela Jenkins, a community member who has also long participated in the working group, said she was happy with the language, especially around “bias by proxy,” that makes officers more aware of perpetuating the bias of civilians. 

“Racial profiling by proxy this way associates blacks with criminality and the mere thought of violent crime can lead us to shift our eyes away from a white face and toward a black face,” Jenkins said. “Therefore, the department bias-by-proxy policy is helpful to expose the hidden bias between neighbors and can help to mitigate this disturbing trend.”  

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