San Francisco Police Department headquarters. Photo by Eleni Balakrishnan

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. 

Phelicia Jones of activist group Wealth and Disparities in the Black Community demands answers for the lack of representation at the Police Commission’s working group on Aug. 2, 2022. Photo by Eleni Balakrishnan.

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. 

From SFPD’s Quarterly Activity and Data Report, Quarter 1 of 2022.

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. 

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REPORTER. Eleni is our reporter focused on policing in San Francisco. She first moved to the city on a whim nearly 10 years ago, and the Mission has become her home. Follow her on Twitter @miss_elenius.

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  1. What resistance by officers present, because they showed up to see what was going on? Once officer made a comment asking how many traffic stops where done in 2017 compared to the first quarter of 2022. The graph used shows more whites being stopped then any other race. Vision zero starts with traffic stops to correct bad driving behavior. When so called activist start doing police work …..

  2. to a full-time city pedestrian, vehicles, including bicycles are a greater threat when ignoring speed laws, stoplights and cross walks. the knee-jerk reaction to conflate a registration violation with the same urgency does nothing to obtain zero pedestrian deaths. this is true no matter how much narrow minds want to believe there must be criminal intent when the most likely reason is financial.

    vision zero is aptly named: it’s not a requirement backed by a law that we can then use to hold our government accountable. it’s just a ‘vision’ that is becoming more surreal.

  3. Rome Jones must be added to this working group for it to have authenticity. Without his voice, the working group members aren’t going to be able to feel the experience of being racially profiled in a traffic stop and not knowing if you’re going to come out of it alive.

  4. I’d like to see them also address the extreme gender disparity, which is even more skewed than the racial disparity. I haven’t been able to find any SF statistics on traffic stops by gender (Mission Local?) , but surely the extreme disparity in prison population (93% of prison population is men, even though men only make up 49.48% of the U.S. population) is also reflected in traffic stops.

    In fact, men seem to make up a huge percentage of all police encounters even though women make up just over 50% of the population, yet have very little representation in prison populations.

  5. Look at those overall numbers: SFPD does not enforce traffic laws anymore. And it shows on the streets. In the interests of safety, why aren’t we having heated discussions about this utter abdication? There are no rules if there is no enforcement. I see red lights run – a serious safety issue, unlike registration tags – every day. Red lights are the new stop signs. Stop signs are just suggestions. Enforcement is necessary, and not a necessary evil.

    1. Agreed. SFMTA does all this nonsense with turn restrictions, HOV lanes on Geary and Lombard, lowered speed limits in the Tenderloin, etc., and it’s all some kind of a bad joke. Everyone knows it’s a bunch of nonsense, including the police.

  6. Perhaps it is time for a class-action law-suit, demanding recompense for all such stops that never made it to court; or were successfully challenged?

  7. The police union say they need to stop cars for “vision zero” yet they actively lobby against automated traffic enforcement (speed, light, stop sign cameras).

  8. Thank you Ms. Balakrishnan for your reporting. One way to assure that community involvement is minimized is to hold an in-person only meeting on a Thursday at 11:30 AM. To promote community involvement, police commission meetings must be hybrid and not scheduled during working hours.

    1. Agree. I generally take the view that these “community” meetings are hopeless because the only people who show up at these times are those who do not have productive jobs or responsibilities. So they are dominated by “activists”, “advocates” and those with an axe to grind rather than the ordinary people and majority who decide elections.

  9. I am glad this journalist is using the term “Black” instead of “African-American” since that is the communities preference. Now if journalists can stop using “Latinx” and use that communities preferred term, typically “Hispanic”, I will be able to finish reading the article with the understanding they actually have spoken to someone of that community before.

  10. We definitely need to do traffic stops on bad/expired tags. Registration is the primary enforcement mechanism for traffic tickets, parking tickets, smog, etc. Also, thieves will put fake tags on stolen cars. You can’t mail tickets on the basis of a fake or expired tag. Additionally, I suspect that someone with bad tags won’t be insured either. You have to stop the car and question the driver. And you may have to tow/impound the car.

  11. The gall of citing Vision Zero as an excuse for racist police profiling!

    “Police union president Tracy McCray said traffic enforcement was necessary to reach the city’s Vision Zero goals to end traffic deaths.”

    The SFPD has completely dragged its feet on any kind of support for pedestrian safety. And now it’s hiding behind a program it’s been wiping its feet on for years. Typical BS.

    1. Bicycle policy in SF has been one elaborate contortion around the fact that the SFPD refuses to enforce the California Vehicle Code to keep peds and cyclists safe.

      Pretext stops have nothing to do with enforcing moving violations, speeding, illegal turns, failure to stop, that put us at risk.

      That the supervisors have not appointed one ped or cyclist activist to the Police Commission in 20 yr indicates that nobody is up for the heavy lift to get the SFPD away from pretext stops and onto stopping dangerous moving violations.