Community organizations, civil rights advocates, and city supervisors spoke out Wednesday morning in support of ending the longstanding practice in which police make traffic stops for minor infractions in the hope of discovering larger crimes. This came just hours before a new policy proposal is to be presented at the Police Commission.
“Pretext stops,” as the practice is commonly called, are often racially biased, opponents say, and disproportionately impact communities of color. The stops include minor issues like broken tail lights, jaywalking, or tinted windows.
Police Commissioner Max Carter-Oberstone will present a proposal tonight for a reworked SFPD general order dictating traffic enforcement, a policy that has not been updated since 1994. His proposal suggests new restrictions on what he calls a “dubious practice” of pretext stops by the police department.
“We have to end the incentives for officers to fish for evidence,” said Deputy Public Defender Brian Cox who, as a member of the Coalition to End Biased Stops, has been pushing to curtail the San Francisco Police Department’s use of pretext stops.
Cox told Mission Local in an earlier interview that even if pretext stops turned up criminal activity on occasion, that wasn’t enough to justify the practice: “a broken clock is also right twice a day,” he said. The District Attorney’s office, after Chesa Boudin’s election in 2020, announced that it would no longer file charges for contraband found during pretextual traffic stops.
The Coalition to End Biased Stops hosted this morning’s virtual press conference. The coalition is made up of 60 civil rights, traffic safety and community organizations, including the ACLU of Northern California, GLIDE Foundation, and the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition.
Wealth and Disparities in the Black Community leader Phelicia Jones also spoke at this morning’s press conference, saying that her colleagues’ efforts over the years have not been met with a sense of urgency, despite persistently high racial disparities in police traffic stops, arrests, and uses of force.
Recent data from 2021 presented by the SFPD earlier this year showed that Black San Franciscans are five times more likely to be stopped as whites, 13 times more likely to have force used on them, and eight times more likely to be searched. Members of Jones’ organization recite these statistics weekly and urge the Police Commission to act during the Police Commission’s public comment.
Supervisor Dean Preston described pretext stops as a “legal loophole for racial profiling and harrassment of certain communities,” and pointed to disparate stop and jail data among different groups.
“We’ve heard assurances that the [police] department will keep working on reducing racial disparities. But the truth is in the data, and San Francisco police officers are continuing to stop, search and use force against Black and Brown people at extreme and unacceptable rates that are higher than in most other major cities,” Preston said.
Other jurisdictions have already taken steps to prohibit pretext stops. Philadelphia is reportedly the first major U.S. city to ban the stops, while Los Angeles police adopted a new policy in March limiting when police can use minor violations to investigate civilians. Berkeley city officials plan to curtail pretext stops, and Washington state’s Senate Bill 5485, to ban pretext stops, is currently in committee.
Under a new SFPD policy, officers may be prohibited from stopping drivers for various reasons that don’t directly impact public safety, and instead can mail a citation to the vehicle owner. If a police officer has stopped someone for a traffic violation, they may be restricted in the questions they can ask, such as the driver’s probation status, unless reasonable suspicion or probable cause arises during the stop.
The draft policy, as it stands, prohibits “biased stops” but offers some exceptions that allow for pretext stops. If a driver or their vehicle matches the description of a suspect or suspect vehicle, for example, or if they are operating a commercial vehicle, the driver may be pulled over for the minor infractions.
The proposed policy will likely see several months of working-group discussions and revisions before a new policy is finalized.
“We have to do it in a way that doesn’t allow loopholes or exceptions to destroy the rule,” Cox said.
Meanwhile, Police Chief Bill Scott has agreed with a general consensus to restrict pretext stops, but has spoken out against a full ban.
Police Commissioner Jesús Gabriel Yáñez noted that many stops do nothing to improve public safety, and said that taking pretext stops off the table for police officers will not only have “tangible impacts” on racial disparities, but can also help an understaffed police department better allocate its resources.
Yáñez, Cox and Board of Supervisors President Shamann Walton spoke at today’s press conference about their own or their parents’ experiences with law enforcement. Walton described instances as a teenager when officers used excuses like a clear plate over his license plate, or the fact that his friends all wore beanies, as reasons to pull him over.
Sameena Usman, from the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said one pretext used by police to stop drivers is objects hanging from a rearview mirror, which she said impacts Muslim community members who hang prayer beads or other religious objects in their cars.
“Pretext stops, stopping people because they look a certain way, because you feel a certain way, it’s something that we have to stop and we need to stop immediately,” Walton said. “They’re terrifying, extremely traumatizing. And it’s unfortunate that this has been the status quo for Black males and Brown males.”
Update: This story was updated to include a policy from the District Attorney’s office.