After some difficulty getting community members’ input on a police policy regulating when officers can stop a driver, a cop-free listening session at Glide Memorial Church Wednesday night showed some renewed promise, and attracted about 20 residents.
A woman in an “Unapologetically Black” hoodie described her “awful” and “dehumanizing” experience of getting pulled over with her partner, who was immediately asked by the officer if he was on probation or parole. Since he was on probation, she said, the officers were able to search the entire car.
The SFPD’s proposed new policy, as written, would end such “fishing expeditions,” in which police can ask questions about probation status during a routine traffic stop.
Listening sessions like the one on Wednesday are being held as the Police Commission revises a San Francisco Police Department general order prohibiting officers from stopping drivers for minor infractions. So-called pretext stops — in which officers use a low-level offense as an excuse to find evidence of criminal activity — disproportionately affect communities of color.
Sheryl Davis, director of the Human Rights Commission, told Mission Local in a recent interview that community participation had been low, which is why her team extended the month of listening sessions into a second month and is still adding more sessions.
At Wednesday’s session, attendees from Glide and the wider community discussed their lived experiences with police traffic enforcement.
As a church choir trilled in the background, one formerly incarcerated attendee shared that his encounters with police generally go well, because he keeps his hands on his steering wheel at all times, has his license and registration ready in his hand before the officer approaches, and insists repeatedly that “from this point on, I remain silent.”
Many don’t realize that refusal is within their rights. And even if they did, encounters with police can quickly sour. As it stands, once an officer learns that a person is on probation or parole, they can search that person without a warrant. This is something the new policy seeks to discourage.
Wednesday’s listening session came after a series of community meetings, held in September, did not effectively entice the public to attend meetings with police commissioners and the Human Rights Commission.
Police Commission president Cindy Elias told Mission Local on Wednesday that she found her group discussion with several young people from Collective Impact SF to be “really interesting.” Instead of focusing on the policy, she said, “just having mutual respect, to them, that was the most important thing.”
One conclusion drawn by attendees was the importance of educating the community about what is and is not legal. When discussing the list of government codes listed in the draft policy, Elias noted that the younger attendees didn’t seem to realize that actions like hanging an item from a rearview mirror are illegal in California. (Under the current draft policy, SFPD officers would not be allowed to pull over a driver for this and other listed offenses, but could instead mail the driver a citation.)
Ensuring that regular people know their rights was a priority raised by another group.
The stories of being racially targeted or mistreated during traffic stops weren’t new or unfamiliar to those in charge, but the meeting offered a rare platform for many community members, including youths, to share their views on a police policy currently under revision.
“The stories are consistently reaffirmed,” said John McKnight of the Human Rights Commission, who sat at a table and led one of the three small group discussions. Hearing from more communities, as the HRC has been doing over the past two months, he said, “validates the concerns in the areas that we’re addressing in the [policy].”
The several younger people in attendance, though they did not stay through the meeting, were a welcome addition to gatherings that are often attended by some of the same figures from the Police Department, Police Commission, and Human Rights Commission.
The discomfort of attending a meeting full of uniformed police officers was an issue frequently raised by community members and their advocates. Many meetings on the traffic stop policy, including the listening sessions purportedly focused on community input, have been flooded with police.
Glide took charge of inviting people from its community to Wednesday night’s listening session, and decidedly made it a police-free meeting, said HRC secretary Cathy Mulkey Meyer.
Several additional community organizations will host separate listening sessions on the pretext stop policy in coming weeks.