Deputy Public Defender Brian Cox speaks at a virtual press conference calling for the end of pretext stops by the SFPD.

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 Jesus Gabriel Yañez 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.  

Yañez, 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.

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REPORTER. Eleni is our reporter focused on policing in San Francisco. She first moved to the city on a whim over eight years ago, and the Mission has become her home. Follow her on Twitter @miss_elenius.

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  1. Um, I don’t need a “pretext” reason to stop or pursue a suspect vehicle involved in a violent crime (which was listed as the exemption for making a “pretext” stop). That part is SUPER disingenuous.

  2. “… 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”. One more comment specifically on that. I see that once in a while, sometimes combined with a phone sticking off the inside of the windshield. In today’s cars, which are already hard to see out off (main culprit: massive A pillars), you absolutely should get pulled over if you don’t have the driving skill to know this by yourself.

  3. I’m stunned by the comments in support of racial profiling. There’s a thread running through them – entitlement, of being able to afford to comply with every minor rule ever written; the ends justify the means Machiavellian thinking- if people are doing something illegal who cares if their rights were violated? And an air of moral superiority- your way of living life and your rules should prevail over everyone. I can’t help but ask whether the apologists for pretext stops have any concept how humiliating it is to be detained and searched because someone with power has a bias. I know I’m going to get a ton of replies shitting on me because I’m a public defender and must be biased. Literally every human being is biased. Bias is human. That’s actually the point. Mitigating the suffering of groups of people who have historically been powerless to fight abuse might have a cost. I for one feel it is worth it. But then again I spend my days watching the suffering of the victims of profiling.

    1. Help me understand: How do you connect expired car registration stickers, tinted windows, to racial profiling?

      1. Sure, happy to. There are so many rules of the road that if a cop wants to stop someone, they will find a reason. Cops suffer from bias (just like everyone) and cops pull over people of color at hugely disproportionate rates for minor infractions. So sure, maybe white and Asian people have expired tags too sometimes, but they aren’t getting pulled over, harassed and searched at these rates.

        1. Perhaps the police have better instincts about which vehicle transgressions typically correlate to other crimes? Both show negligence and an indifference to the law, and perhaps they happen with some demographics more than others?

        2. I can tell you 1st hand that white people will get pulled over just as easily. Happened to me twice, on an expired sticker and on a dealer-ad type tag prior to the soft-tag era. You like irony? The fine for the expired sticker was issued on an expired form that didn’t have me pay the now-higher fine. All in all no problem, how does this need fixing? What does need fixing and needs to be talked about is abusive laws that you point to. There’s no question there’s some onerous stuff on the books. Like (not CA AFAIK): The cops can take you downtown if you’re behind on your child payments and keep you there until you’re caught up. No surprise then how a totally harmless guy got shot in the back by a cop when he tried to ran away from a traffic stop over that. Again, sh.. like that needs fixing, not the traffic stops.

    2. Counselor, you will have to point out which comments were “in support of racial profiling” or “entitlement”. I saw no evidence of that in the comments above.

      This is not about “every minor rule ever written” — this is about some fundamental aspects of properly operating your vehicle. Everybody else manages to comply with these basic laws.

      As a lawyer, you also know there is always some discretion in enforcement. You also know the right solution for bad laws isn’t to ignore them or fail to enforce them, because that erodes trust in the law. The right solution is to change or repeal outdated laws.

      Same thing with police behavior. Change the behavior, do not throw the laws out.

      As for “your way of living life and your rules” — is this not what “the law” is? And if you’re going to throw “moral superiority” and an “us and them” mindset around, why should someone else’s way of living life and rules prevail over the society that We The People voted for and created?

      Your arguments and tone seem poorly calibrated for what is happening here. This is not an argument in favor of school segregation. San Franciscans are arguing that if police see a car with no plates, tinted windows, and its lights off at night — what a reasonable person would label “suspicious” — they should be able to pull it over and investigate.

      There are many different kinds of bias, and your comment above elides critical distinctions. It is entirely possible for police to reduce explicit and overt bias in traffic stops without making our streets and our city less safe by removing these tools entirely.

      1. What I think you are missing is that pretext stops are not about safety. They are a tool for cops to pull over whoever they want and let’s face it, they want to pull over black and brown people. Expired tags are not a safety issue. Poor people have expired tags because they can’t afford to pay their registration. And I really struggle with the argument that laws should always all be enforced. Have you never jaywalked? Have you ever not fully stopped at a stop sign? Have you ever gotten a bill at a restaurant where they forgot to charge you for something and you didn’t say anything and paid less? Have you ever speeded in your car? There are literally laws about everything and it’s about what laws the police choose to enforce and when and that’s where bias comes in.
        Why is the guy who sold a rock of crack on the corner of turk and Hyde arrested for possession for sale of drugs but the Sackler family walks free? Why does Walmart get away with wage theft but a homeless person who stole food from a store goes to jail? We as a society have decided what to criminalize and what laws to enforce and when and that’s about culture and power. it’s about white people who make laws and enforce them disproportionately against people of color. that’s all I’m saying.
        The idea that somehow “crime” is such a scourge that people’s rights don’t matter is offensive to people who see the victims of this every day. Crime is what police and the power structures in our society choose to call crime (see above Sackler example). People who have no rights, people who are beaten down by these systems, by harassment over expired tags and biking on the sidewalk will not somehow become better citizens by being fined, jailed or harassed by the police. This only breeds mistrust and more suffering for literally everyone.

        1. But if criminals are being arrested and convicted as a result of such stops, then why would you object to that? Is it perhaps that you actually don’t want criminals to be caught?

          Often these stops lead to arrests on outstanding warrants. Why would you not want those people detected and detained?

          1. Tom… would your last name happen to be Ostly? Cause that would literally explain everything.

        2. Thank you “Public Defender Woman! And tom should get over himself! Remember Los Siete teens that sfpd destroyed their youth that pd is now murderers. City lacks conviction to do anything to rogue cops that destroy and kill our children!

    3. Recognizing your bias at least mitigates it. But I think what you are really seeing here is that people are a lot more concerned abut crime, and solving crime, than they are that someone has their precious “rights” briefly and temporarily suspended.

      The cops are in the front line and they know what kind of behaviors typically correlate to criminal activity. And they also know which demographic groups commit more crime and less crime. They don’t stop Asian grandmothers because Asian grandmothers do not commit much if any crime.

      The simplest way to avoid police attention is to not commit a crime.

      1. see above. you commit crimes regularly but no one cares. we all do. I do too. do you not jaywalk? do you fully stop for 3 seconds at all stop signs? have you ever not put your turn signal on? yeah. “don’t commit crimes” sounds swell and easy but when our society criminalizes everything but only enforces against some folks, that’s not really the answer.

        1. No, lady, I do not “commit crimes regularly”

          And no lady, most people do obey the law.

          Why don’t you just be honest and admit that you are on the side of the criminals and that you seek to reduce policing strategies that are effective at catching the real criminals?

  4. We should not be continuing to incentivize criminality by allowing criminals to get off without penalty. This policy would be disastrous.

  5. This will lead to further erosion of compliance with basic laws, and still leaves the cops some wiggle room for selective enforcement based on their own criteria.

    I am disappointed the article (like most of the press in SF) fails to list specifically what is going to be ignored. This is likely because the proposed list of laws to be ignored is quite shocking: it includes things like “not having a license plate” (so how exactly are you going to mail a ticket?), expired registration, driving with lights off, and even moving violations like making illegal left turns.

    I am all for reducing bias, but this will not do that in a way that produces good results, and will result in further non-compliance, increased crime, and increased danger on San Francisco streets.

    I would rather see all these laws enforced across the board for everyone than ignored. There is a reason they all exist.

  6. Walking by the Valencia Gardens terrifies me…. Why is some terror more valid than any other?

  7. What is completely missing from this article is data about how often such stops lead to arrests and convictions for various crimes that would have gone undetected had the cops not performed the stop.

    How many guns are recovered this way? How much in illegal drugs? How much stolen property is restored to its rightful owners? How many bad guys get put away who otherwise would still be walking our streets.

    Or is none of that relevant somehow?

    In other words are the proponents of restricting such stops arguing that they are never effective? Or perhaps that they are too effective?

  8. I would urge chiefs of police to push back on policies such as this. Essentially written by overly bias groups such as the ACLU and public defenders. Could a more reasonable policy be drawn up that guides officers, but does not overly restrict officers? – yes. I hope Chief Scott will not accede to what the commissioner is about to propose. Asking someone if they are on probation or parole might sound rude but it could be an important factor in officer safety and for evidentiary reasons.

  9. IF problem is broken tail light, maybe cops can take a picture of the license plate/broken tail light and have it auto send a fix-it ticket.

    On the surface, most folks don’t like to hear that laws are not going to be enforced anymore which is what this sounds like. If they explain how they will enforce those laws in other ways, this won’t be an issue for the majority. If they don’t, Fox news will have a heyday.

  10. On thing they can do is give meter maids the authority to write tickets for overly tinted windows. This is something meter maids could easily do and take that off the police departments plate.

    It would be a big money maker for the city as well as this is a law that doesn’t get enforced at all. More and more people are tinting their windows illegally. It makes driving conditions more dangerous when other drivers and pedestrians cannot see the person behind the wheel.