In the first of several listening sessions, Latinx community members on Tuesday shared their personal experiences of being targeted by police, and their lingering doubts about a new traffic-stop policy for the San Francisco Police Department.
The drafted policy, as written, will ban racially or otherwise biased stops and limit “pretext stops,” in which a police officer uses a low-level infraction as a pretext to search for, and investigate, other potential crimes.
“There is a disconnect between the police officers, and even community members, who think that it’s okay to stop folks because it’s going to save lives, when in actuality, the experience, for many folks, is that it has cost people their life, unjustly,” said Sheryl Davis, head of the Human Rights Commission, who led the meeting.
Over breakfast at the Mission Language And Vocational School — or the Mission’s “City Hall,” as one attendee called it, because it has become the center for all activities of the Latino Task Force and other Latinx nonprofits — groups of three or four broke out into discussion over their lived experiences.
Joanna Hernandez, who works with the San Francisco Pretrial Diversion Project, said her young niece got pulled over while driving her car with a “Mission Pride” bumper sticker. The officer, to Hernandez’s dismay, advised her niece to remove the sticker.
In contrast to working group meetings at SFPD headquarters this month discussing the same issue, many of those present at Tuesday morning’s meeting did not want to get into the jargon of the new policy.
Instead, attendees were often more concerned with whether the new policy would be effectively enforced, whether officers would be properly trained in a new policy, and whether violating officers would actually face discipline.
The session, led by the Human Rights Commission, was intended to bring community input to an ongoing rewrite of the SFPD policy on traffic enforcement, aiming to reduce extreme racial disparities in who is pulled over, searched or arrested by police in San Francisco.
Davis brought up instances in which even passengers in a car end up questioned or asked for identification by police during pretext stops. Such practices, she said, can escalate an encounter unnecessarily.
Others present struggled to articulate the discrimination they had experienced, but mentioned demeaning language or an impolite tone used by officers during traffic stops.
“It’s just the way they say it,” one attendee said, remembering past encounters with law enforcement. Fellow community members murmured in agreement.
Michael Brown, who works with Five Keys Charter Schools, said it came down to effective communication between police and the community they work in. “They’re supposed to be serving and protecting us. So serve and protect us,” Brown said.
Hernandez said she remembered the days when community members could go to Mission Station and recap what happened during the last week, or meet with new officers to ensure they were familiar with the neighborhood’s culture.
“Nowadays, it’s harder,” Hernandez said. She pointed to the fence around Mission police station as an example of the separation between the police and the people. “You run into all these pretext stops and biased stops because they don’t understand our communities, because they live in, like, Stockton or something.”
Hernandez stressed the importance of holding another listening session with the monolingual Spanish community, to ensure their voices could be heard.
Police Commissioner Kevin Benedicto, who attended Tuesday’s meeting, said it was helpful to hear directly from community members who are often most impacted by the SFPD’s traffic policy, instead of just from the officers and legal organizations that attend the official working group.
“The number of people here that had firsthand experience with traffic stops that they felt were unfair, and what lessons that they think the department can learn from that, I think is so valuable,” Benedicto said.
Over the coming month, the Human Rights Commission will hold similar sessions with different community groups around the city. Davis said she was pleased with the discussion on Tuesday, but said she had to think about how her team would “connect the dots” and present a comprehensive set of recommendations to the working group.
Come October, the working group of attorneys and stakeholders will reconvene to finalize the policy draft.