San Francisco Police Department headquarters. Photo by Eleni Balakrishnan

The San Francisco Police Commission working group charged with revising a nearly 30-year-old policy on police traffic stops, one that has disproportionately targeted Black and Latinx residents, failed to agree on a major change that would prohibit specific traffic stops by police. 

How the drafted policy, banning 18 types of traffic stops, will change based on the group’s discussions, is unclear. 

The San Francisco Police Department General Order 9.01 under review covers traffic enforcement. Studies show that officers have long stopped residents for small infractions, only to embark on fishing expeditions to find criminal activity. So-called “pretext stops” have been compared to stop-and-frisk policies in places like New York City that disproportionately impact communities of color. 

The working group meetings included experts, police reform advocates, and members of the SFPD, all of whom generally agree that biased stops should end. But a major point of contention throughout the policy discussions has been whether to prohibit stops on a specific list of infractions. 

Other jurisdictions have already begun limiting traffic enforcement with the goal of reducing racial disparities in policing: Philadelphia officers, earlier this year, stopped enforcing eight vehicle codes; Virginia banned 15 types of stops in 2021. 

The SFPD wanted no such list, while others insisted on keeping or even expanding the list. 

The 18 infractions that commissioners banned in the draft policy are mostly non-moving violations, such as the failure to illuminate one’s license plate, an improperly mounted plate, or hanging an item from a rear view mirror.  

According to an analysis by the Public Defender’s office, nearly half of the common reasons Black drivers were stopped in San Francisco in 2019 had to do with equipment violations. Among white drivers, equipment violations made up less than 15 percent of the common stop reasons. 

Reform advocates believe banning specific kinds of stops will lower racial disparities in policing, and prevent police violence by limiting police interactions with the communities of color that traffic enforcement generally focuses on. Such minor stops can escalate quickly, resulting in Black and Brown residents being severely injured or killed. 

San Francisco police officers, for example, stopped Stephen Michael Young on Dec. 14, 2011, because his registration had expired. He was shot and killed by officers after fleeing from the car and firing at the officers. 

Daunte Wright was pulled over in 2021 in Minnesota for expired registration tags and hanging an air freshener from his rearview mirror. The stop escalated into a confrontation, and the police officer ended up killing Wright. Sandra Bland was pulled over in 2015 in Texas for failing to signal; the exchange escalated, and she ended up being taken to jail, where she died by suicide. 

Each time the working group discussed an infraction in San Francisco, however, an officer in the working group would present a hypothetical scenario of when police needed the ability to enforce that law in real time, for “public safety” reasons. 

Hanging an item from a rearview mirror could obstruct a driver’s view of the road, one officer pointed out. Tinted windows prevent officers from seeing the race of drivers, so those stops should still be permitted, said another. 

One SFPD officer disagreed with the whole premise that the working group could help devise a policy order. “This is not the body to be discussing certain laws we can and cannot enforce,” said Sgt. Brian Kneuker. He and his colleague would periodically wave a blue vehicle code book that they brought to meetings seemingly for that express purpose. 

But the new policy doesn’t prevent enforcement of those laws altogether, because officers could instead mail a citation to the violator.

It would, however, prevent police officers from making traffic stops on that basis. It would also prevent officers from questioning someone they stop about probation or parole status or searching them without “reasonable suspicion or probable cause.”

In turn, advocates say this could free up police officers to focus on dangerous moving violations. 

“[We’re] not focused on the things that are keeping people unsafe, which is speeding, running red lights, not stopping for pedestrians in the crosswalk, all the most dangerous driving behavior,” said Walk SF’s Jody Medeiros during one meeting early this month. “It’s still not addressing the things that are killing people and our serious injuries.” 

Many of the banned stops also have caveats in the draft policy, allowing police to still make stops when a risky U-turn is made, or when a car’s lights are out after dark. 

Commission president Cindy Elias said at a public listening session last week that the minor infractions listed in the draft policy are rarely enforced, according to the police officers that she has spoken with. 

“I’m like, ‘Okay, tell me in the last six months how many people you’ve pulled over for registration tags?’ — ‘Oh, I haven’t,’ Elias said officers tell her. “Okay, well, then tell me the last year, how many have you pulled over for registration tags?” 

They tell her: Maybe one or two. 

“So within a year’s time, if you’ve only pulled over one to two people — we’ll even say a handful. How does that make us safer?” Elias asked. 

Out of more than 3,500 stops made in the first quarter of 2022, SFPD officers reported stopping 19 people for having tinted windows alone, according to data obtained by Mission Local. Four were searched, and only three ended up cited or arrested. Officers reported fewer than 15 stops for failing to use a turn signal, five people stopped for littering, and two were questioned for sleeping in a parked car. 

And these stops often don’t lead to discovery of contraband or illegal activity. According to data that will be presented to the Police Commission this week, Black residents of California make up only 6 percent of the population, but make up nearly 40 percent of those taken from their vehicles or handcuffed without any discovery made. 

Now, after four public working group sessions (and some private listening sessions with SFPD members), the Police Commissioners will process the feedback they received over the past three months. The Human Rights Commission, meanwhile, is continuing its community listening sessions to get feedback from the public and impacted communities on the policy. 

Some constructive discussion has been coordinated by a representative from the Controller’s Office, who delicately handles the sparring parties as though they’re young children. Still, voices have been raised, ineffective group exercises have left participants baffled, and an off-agenda “copaganda” video played by the police chief raised eyebrows around the room. 

Members of the SFPD still maintain that simply banning pretextual stops without banning enforcement of certain codes will be enough. “They think that’s going to be sufficient. So what would be your answer to that?” Elias asked those at her discussion table during a meeting last week at Glide Memorial Church. 

Yoel Haile, the director of the Criminal Justice Program at the ACLU of Northern California, jumped in to answer. An officer’s original intentions for a stop are “almost impossible to prove” after the fact, he said, which is why a list outlining exactly what officers can and cannot do is critical. 

Otherwise, Haile said officers can easily invent a reason for why they initiated the stop. “When [officers are] on the stand, they will lie and they will say, ‘Oh, I didn’t stop him because he had beads on his rearview mirror … ‘” 

Apparently tired of the standstill, Elias, at a working group meeting this month, asked members of the police department for alternative suggestions on how to lower the SFPD’s glaring racial disparities in enforcement, searches, and use of force. 

“Give us some solutions on how to address racial disparities, because they exist and we’re here; this is the point where we have to address them,” Elias said. “Tell me what it is that you think is going to help alleviate this issue while maintaining public safety.” 

They had no response. 

Last week, after the fourth and final working group meeting on Oct. 20, Elias told Mission Local that she still had not gotten an answer. “Not yet,” she said. 

The Human Rights Commission will be hosting several community listening sessions in coming weeks, including the ones listed below.

  • Nov. 8 at the African American Art and Culture Complex at 5 p.m.
  • Nov. 10 at the Human Rights Commission
  • Nov. 15 at the Samoan Community Development Center at 5:30 p.m.
  • Nov. 16 at Booker T. Washington Community Service Center at 6 p.m.

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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. Regarding expired tags, you can’t enforce that my just mailing a citation. Citations are enforced when you renew your tags. The DMV will require you to pay off/rectify any outstanding citations as a condition of renewal. A scofflaw without any intention of renewing his tags will just throw away the citation and keep driving. Scofflaws whose tags expired more than six months ago can have their cars taken. That can only be done by a traffic stop.

    The SFPD can fix their racial bias by stopping more whites and Asians. There are so many legit moving violations on the streets right now. The traffic division is barely working, writing 10 tickets per DAY. They could do more like 100. That’s the real problem.