The San Francisco Police Commission on Wednesday unanimously approved a policy that guides the circumstances under which SFPD officers are allowed to detain, search and arrest suspects.
The policy revisions seek to address a setting in which a large portion of biased policing takes place: the daily interactions police have with communities of color that can result in detentions, searches and arrests based solely on a person’s ethnic or socioeconomic appearance.
“Detaining, particularly pat searching, without a reasonable suspicion that the person is armed and dangerous, builds resentment, and builds distrust that the police are there to protect and serve,” said Rebecca Young, a deputy public defender who worked on the policy and who has represented clients who have been unfairly stopped and searched by police.
Young said improper stops and searches create a public perception that police are in communities only to “harass and contain.”
The policy passed on Wednesday tells SFPD officers at the outset that a person’s appearance, such as their “race, color, ethnicity … or socioeconomic status does not justify even a brief detention, a request for identification, or an order to move on, nor do general complaints from residents, merchants or others.”
The policy is a vast expansion of the SFPD’s previous policy guiding detentions, which was last revised in 2003. The old policy was not up to date with the law and did not detail circumstances in which it was constitutionally permissible to detain someone, perform a pat search, or enact an arrest.
The new policy clearly defines those circumstances. Notably, said Police Commission Vice President Cindy Elias, who played a large role in writing the policy with the input of police and community members, the policy limits when police can perform pat searches. They are only permitted if the officer can articulate a reason for believing a suspect is “armed and dangerous.” And even then, the search must be limited to searching for weapons that could harm someone.
Police officers are required to document the reasons for detaining and searching a person, and Elias said this will help in tracking these incidents and understanding trends in police bias.
“It gives us another way to understand the disparities in how people are being stopped, detained and searched,” Elias said. “This is another safeguard to ask why this is happening.”
The policy also says officers can detain individuals only when they can articulate facts that support a suspicion that a person was, or might be, involved in a crime. After a person is detained for a short period and let go, an officer must provide the person with a so-called “certificate of release” following the detention, which provides the officer’s name, star number, and where a person can file a commendation or complaint.
If a person is stopped in a vehicle and given a warning, officers are required to provide drivers with a business card with their name and star number.
These revisions are an answer to the 2016 U.S. Department of Justice review of the SFPD that found Black and Latino drivers are “disproportionately searched and arrested compared to White drivers,” and Black drivers are “more likely to be warned and less likely to be ticketed than White drivers.”
“Not only are African-American and Hispanic drivers disproportionately searched following traffic stops, but they are also less likely to be found with contraband than White drivers,” the DOJ added.
Since the DOJ released its findings, the disproportionate numbers have persisted. In the third quarter of 2020, the most recent data available, Black people made up 28 percent of traffic stops and detentions, and received 36.6 percent of searches in the quarter. Black people make up roughly 5 percent of the city’s population.
“It was long and painstaking,” said Chief Bill Scott of revising the investigative detentions policy. “This is one of the policies that will start to change the narrative around our stops and searches issues.”