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.
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.
“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.