The conversation on race in San Francisco got intense, and personal, on Tuesday at the Police Commission’s first community working group to discuss a new traffic enforcement policy.
Even before the meeting began, one outspoken working-group member wasted no time, and began grilling Commissioner Max Carter-Oberstone, who was chairing the meeting.
“Where are the people in the community? All you guys look like you work for the police department!” Phelicia Jones from the activist group Wealth and Disparities in the Black Community cried out when she walked in to find a room full of suits and more than a dozen police officers.
The meeting was held in the middle of the day at the police headquarters on Third Street, a place, she pointed out, where community members who distrust the police might not feel comfortable entering, let alone voicing their opinions.
The working group, composed of police commissioners, police officers, outside advocates like the ACLU and some community members, will focus on updating a decades-old policy regarding how and when police should stop a civilian to enforce traffic laws. Members of the Black and Latinx communities have been pushing to curtail the use of often racially-biased pretexts for these stops.
So-called “pretext stops” are when law enforcement use a minor traffic violation as a pretext to look for and investigate unrelated crimes. For years, such stops have disproportionately impacted communities of color, and the disparities persist.
Under the new policy being considered by the working group, officers may no longer be able to stop a driver for minor infractions, like failing to show both license plates or registration tags, objects hanging from a rearview mirror, or sleeping in a car. Instead, police can mail a citation or warning to the vehicle’s owner.
Tuesday’s meeting was mostly introductory and did not delve into the specifics of the policy, but community advocates came prepared to fight.
Former youth commissioner Rome Jones, 23, who said his brother had been killed by police in 2009, noted that no one in the room on Tuesday was anywhere near his age. He encouraged the group to “actively look for” community members to bring to the table.
The two had a point. Many of the panel seats dedicated to working-group members were held by city or police officials. And the majority of seats in the audience were occupied by members of the SFPD, in and out of uniform. Others present included the ACLU of Northern California and public defenders, and only about five community advocates.
Carter-Oberstone said that more community members would have a chance to provide their input in September, when the Human Rights Commission would spearhead community outreach by hosting listening sessions and town halls that would be “complementary to the work” being done by the working group.
There were some contentious initial comments from police officers present: Police union president Tracy McCray said traffic enforcement was necessary to reach the city’s Vision Zero goals to end traffic deaths. Plus, eliminating bias from policing entirely was “not gonna happen,” McCray said. “Should we not stop people because they might be Black?”
Despite some resistance, attendees with lived experiences of racist policing shared their experiences, including Police Chief Bill Scott. He said he had personally been pulled over while wearing a police uniform before he came to San Francisco.
Traffic stop data from the SFPD’s use of such stops shows evidence of extreme disparities: Black San Franciscans, less than 6 percent of the city’s population, made up 23 percent of all stops and 34 percent of searches in the first quarter of 2022.
In looking at the “stark racial disparities” in the SFPD’s stop data, Carter-Oberstone said there were a few trends that stood out. First, the stops that were driving racial disparities tended to be “low-level” traffic and pedestrian infractions, like hanging fuzzy dice from a rearview mirror.
Further, such stops have a low return on investment, Carter-Oberstone continued. Black people are the most searched in San Francisco, but are caught with contraband at similar or often lower rates than other racial groups.
Community advocates at Tuesday’s working group came prepared for a fight, but many seemed reassured by an apparent commitment from the police chief to tackle the department’s problems, despite resistance from officers present today and during public comment before the Police Commission.
Jones, who spoke throughout the meeting, voicing her concerns and responding to other group members’ comments, often addressed Chief Scott or the three presiding police commissioners directly. She called on them to make a “true” working group that is accessible to the community, and to truly listen to the stories of those with lived trauma at the hands of police.
Others in the room expressed their agreement and appreciation for Jones’ outspokenness.
“You have to start making some concessions,” Jones said firmly to Scott. Scott nodded in agreement.
“It was a good, robust conversation,” said Brian Cox of the Public Defender’s Office after the meeting. “I don’t want this working group to be a performative exercise … if it doesn’t move the needle and the numbers, then it’s a waste of time.”
Cox agreed it was strange to hold the meeting at the police headquarters with so many police officers in the room, but said he believed there was serious commitment from the department to do the work to improve the policy.
“Race is one of the subjects in this country that we’ve never been able to talk about in an honest way,” said Scott. And, without having that conversation, he said, the department can’t succeed in its efforts to address the obvious disparities in its policing.
Scott said the SFPD has preemptively been working to ensure its members are educated on the history of policing and aware of the reason why Black and brown communities are distrustful of police.
At the end of the meeting, Scott played a video that showed SFPD members on a recent trip to Birmingham, learning about racism in the 1960s South and instances of police brutality. In documentary-style interviews, higher-up members of the SFPD shared their newfound understanding of the country’s racist past and some communities’ distrust for the police. Chief Scott addressed the camera with a Black Lives Matter poster propped behind him.
“They have a great media person. It’s really great propaganda,” said Angela Jenkins, an activist with SF Interrupting Racial Profiling after the meeting. But even so, Jenkins called the Alabama trip “a movement in the right direction” for the chief.
How much impact the working group or other community meetings will have on the final outcome of the policy is still unclear. The working group, according to Carter-Oberstone, is intended as an “advisory committee” and the policy will still ultimately go to negotiations with the police union.
“It’ll be a knock-down, drag-out fight, and I think we’re here for that,” Cox predicted.
The next working group will convene on Thursday, Aug. 25, again at the police department headquarters at 11:30 a.m. Recommendations must be submitted by Aug. 19 to be included in the next meeting’s discussion.