Police cars at 21st and Mission Streets
Photo by Eleni Balakrishnan

San Francisco police would no longer be permitted to stop a driver for sleeping in their car, missing a front license plate or hanging fuzzy dice from the rearview mirror, according to a new traffic enforcement policy released today by the Police Commission.

The new draft policy would ban police from making nine specific types of stops, a reduction from the 18 listed in an earlier draft published this summer

The revisions come after months of gathering feedback from police, researchers, advocates, and community members. The new policy is meant to address and reduce the disproportionate policing endured by communities of color. 

The banned stops for low-level, equipment or regulatory violation stops are often used as a pretext for officers to investigate additional crimes, even if the officer has no evidence of any such crime before stopping the person. And data has shown that these stops, in addition to being focused on communities of color, “return negligible public safety benefits,” read a letter from the Police Commission today, prefacing the new policy. 

The new policy will be up for discussion at the Police Commission meeting on Wednesday, Dec. 7, Vice President Max Carter-Oberstone confirmed. Once the commission has voted to approve it, it will go to a meet-and-confer process with the police union. 

Police could mail citations for the banned low-level stops, without conducting a traffic stop. They could also stop a person for another more serious infraction, and during the stop enforce any of the banned items. 

Graphic by Chuqin Jiang

An original draft of the policy, released this summer, has been a topic of discussion for months. Commissioners Cindy Elias, Max Carter-Oberstone, and Kevin Benedicto led four public working group meetings and listening sessions with police officers, and the Human Rights Commission held eight public listening sessions and other private ones within different communities around the city. 

Discussions have gone back and forth with members of the SFPD reluctant to give up their right to enforce certain infractions — even infractions that people are rarely cited for, and that rarely help discover illegal activity. Community members, meanwhile, have spoken up in support of the new policy’s limitations on police power. They have shared their experiences of being targeted, questioned, and searched by police. 

Members of the Latino Task Force discuss police traffic enforcement at a listening session. Photo by Eleni Balakrishnan.

“The overarching goal of the [Department General Order] is to curtail the practice of stopping people for low-level traffic offenses as a pretext to investigate hunches,” the letter continued. Plus, the nine low-level infractions to be banned for traffic stops, it said, have been vetted through MTA and SFPD data to ensure public safety will not be impacted, through crashes or discovery of contraband. 

As with the original draft, officers would still be able to stop a person if they or their car is suspected of being involved in certain crimes. And the officer could choose to notify the person that they are breaking a rule of the road, or issue them a citation without pulling them over. 

The first draft of the policy outlined 18 banned stops, some of which have been removed from Friday’s version: Police will continue to have their discretion to pull drivers over for infractions like littering, tinted windows and broken headlights.

Some of those items, such as unsafe U-turns and lane changes, were removed from the banned list because MTA stop data showed they caused vehicle crashes, Commissioner Max Carter-Oberstone told Mission Local. And data showed that when police made stops for tinted windows, they found drugs more often than during other stops.

Stops for tinted windows, Carter-Oberstone added, are “not, by any means, gold mines of finding drugs.” But compared to the “abysmally low” gun and drug recovery rates during other low-level traffic stops, these stops are slightly more effective in finding criminal activity.

“It’s important that nothing on this list have public safety implications,” Carter-Oberstone said, which is why those items were removed from the banned list “out of an abundance of caution.”

Another notable change is that the listed pedestrian, scooter or bicycle infractions from the first draft were all lumped into one item: Police would no longer stop them at all for traffic infractions unless there is risk of a crash. 

Other changes in the policy address searches and questioning. As in the first draft, the new version of the policy limits pretext stops; it only allows police to request to search or ask “investigatory questions” about separate criminal activity if officers have reasonable suspicion or probable cause to do so. 

But similar language in the first draft limiting questions about a person’s parole or probation status during a traffic stop has been removed. A line reaffirming an officer’s right to ask for a driver’s license, registration, and insurance has been added. 

“I think it’s important enough that it deserves its own kind of special attention and research and public comment,” said Carter-Oberstone, noting that the topic was in the original draft for discussion purposes. When police can ask probation and parole questions will be addressed in a separate department policy on “Investigative Detentions.”

If officers do end up investigating beyond the original reason for the stop, they will be required to document the circumstances that justified asking investigatory questions or searching the person. The SFPD will be required to track its traffic stops and proactively turn over the data to the commission and the Department of Police Accountability each quarter.

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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. There has been zero traffic enforcement in San Francisco for years. You can blatantly blow red lights, disobey ‘no turn’ signals and signs, text and drive, block the box, and anything else you want while SFPD watches you do it. In fact, I’ve seen SFPD commit blatant and unsafe moving violations themselves (and not while responding to any call.)
    Why do they waste time talking about how they are going to change traffic enforcement that was never happening in the first place? SF is insanely hazardous for non-motorists, while claiming to be the most pedestrian-friendly city in the US.

  2. I have noticed that more drivers are ignoring rules such as not signaling, tailgating, weaving in and out of traffic and making left turns and U-turns when signs prohibit it. These things are dangerous, but more and more people simply ignore the rules, because there are no immediate consequences.

    The success of New York City in lowering crime at one point had to do with penalizing minor infractions -the broken windows approach to lowering crime. If you want the streets to be safe, you can’t make obeying laws optional.

    As for the pretext traffic stops, I am not sure it is right to prohibit them. Criminals often think the laws do not apply to them. If they think they can break minor rules with impunity, it is likely they may have broken more serious ones. I am always amazed by the criminals who do things like transporting drugs in stolen cars and then fall asleep in the middle of the road, or drive without headlights.

    Also, we need to support the police. With all the guns around, their jobs are very dangerous. Too much time has been spent making them feel like criminals.
    It is true that the police, being human, are prejudiced, but I am not sure they are always prejudiced against black and Hispanic people. They might equally be prejudiced against white people or people driving fancy cars. Also, many police are themselves black, Asian and Hispanic, who might have different kinds of prejudice.

  3. Since the SFPD has effectively stopped doing any traffic enforcement since the BLM protests, the only affect this is going to have is to tell drivers they are free to drive recklessly, making u-turns anywhere without signaling with total impunity. Yay more cars-first laws that will make our streets even more dangerous for everyone not riding in one! It’s pathetic that it takes this sort of law to try to control the white supremacist cops that our city chooses to keep under its payroll. Even more pathetic that anyone thinks this will be an effective way to control them. Instead of removing laws that make our streets more terrifying, we should made an actual concerted effort to publicly identify and fire every white supremacist cop because they are ineffective at keeping our city. Currently, white supremacist cops involved in the FBI twitter scandal and high profile shootings are still milking our city dry of money even through they can’t effectively do their jobs any more.

  4. Police officers’ citations for unsafe lane change should not be in this pile. Many multi-lane streets in SF present an opportunity for speeding and dangerous driving. Failure to issue these types of citations is merely an excuse for SFPD’s ***failure*** to do its job of stopping dangerous, speeding drivers. Time and again, we see unsafe lane changes and speed contests in every part of this city-Geneva, Sunset, Portola, North Beach, Bayview, you name it. Unsafe lane change cites are not pretextual if used properly.

  5. Absolute total chaos is here folks….you can’t keep dumbing it down. Ultimately, all this means is more innocent people will be victimized as these police control policies play out.

  6. I resent the implication that people of color are incapable of learning how to use a turn signal or are unable to understand the importance of doing so.

  7. So now Teslas have explicit permission from SFPD to not have front license plates and motorized scooters can continue terrorize pedestrians on sidewalks.

    At least in Oceanview, the roads seem pretty lawless anyway, even compared to the Mission. Now, this behavior is going to be officially tolerated.

    So, if we ever got working red light cameras in this town, which sure do work in places like Millbrae, the wealthy would not be ticketed. Just the regular folks who have front plates.

    A new and improved policy that is going to benefit the privileged. How am I not surprised?

  8. As a Walk SF activist this is lunacy on a different level eve for SF. Ped estrus a must be protected. No signaling while turning or changing lanes. So no warning while driving a 3,500 lbs vehicle ?!?!

    For what? The argument is too many black drivers are pulled over. I don’t believe it. I’m sorry. Safe streets. SFC implemented Vision Zero. This policy furthers puts lives at risk.

    1. Have you ever known a Californian to receive a no signaling ticket? I’ve lived here over 20 years and I’ve met people who didn’t even know it was a traffic law.

      Yes, not signaling is dangerous and inconsiderate. But let’s not pretend like not signaling is “all of a sudden” not being enforced because it never was.

      Infractions like running red lights, intersections in general, tailgating, distracted/tired driving and weaving in and out of lanes at high speeds are more concerning.

  9. Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) in 2012 revealed that approximately 2 billion occurrences of drivers failing to signal happen every day. The study from SAE concluded that 2 million car collisions occur annually as a result of failing to signal. Both gross underestimates. Think first, make policy later.

  10. How on earth is failing to signal not considered dangerous?

    Not that it matters, I suppose. The cops on SF don’t actually care about traffic and pedestrian safety. There are an absurdly small number of citations compared to the amount of terrible driving in this city.