Police Commissioner Kevin Benedicto speaking at a lecturn.
Police Commissioner Kevin Benedicto advocated for the new pretext stop policy. Photo by Will Jarrett.

Politicians and advocates today rallied at City Hall ahead of a vote that, if approved tonight, will prevent the police from pulling people over for certain kinds of traffic violations.

“Willie McCoy, Sandra Bland, Sam DuBose, Walter Scott, Daunte Wright,” recited Reverend Miguel Bustos, a leader of social-justice nonprofit GLIDE, after the crowd hurried inside to escape the rain.

“They should all be alive today. They shared one thing: They were all Black, and they were killed during ordinary traffic stops for violations that didn’t threaten public safety.”

Speakers aligned with the Coalition to End Biased Stops, a group composed of civil rights attorneys, traffic safety organizations and community advocates, argued that the new policy is required to tackle racial inequities in policing. It could do so, they contend, by preventing the police department from enforcing nine so-called “pretext stops,” which are minor traffic violations often used as pretexts for stopping and searching people.

Pretext stops have historically been disproportionately used against communities of color, and there is significant evidence that this is still the case in San Francisco. A recent study from the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR) found that, in 2019, Black and Latinx drivers in the city were most commonly stopped by police. Black drivers were also found to be let go without a citation more frequently than any other racial group, meaning that these stops often did not lead to charges.

Supervisors Dean Preston and Shamman Walton joined the advocates to speak this morning, alongside police commissioners Max Carter-Oberstone and Kevin Benedicto.

“I can’t even count the amount of times my friends and I were pulled over as teenagers for wearing hats like this,” said Walton, brandishing a fuzzy Niners hat. He said that preventing pretext stops would be a way to “protect the constitutional rights” of everyone in the city.

“Right now, we have a system that produces unacceptable racial disparities, is an inefficient use of police resources, and is not a good public safety or investigative tool,” said Benedicto. “We have a responsibility to do something and act on this.”

San Francisco Public Defender Mano Raju said that banning pretext stops would not only reduce racial discrimination in stops, but could make the city safer.

“Right now,” said Raju, “you end up with police spending their time on stops and searches that the data shows are not leading to something.” By eliminating these stops, he said, they could dedicate more time to dangerous violations such as running through red lights.

What is the policy, exactly?

A version of this policy has been on the table since last summer. In its first iteration, it proposed that 18 types of stops be banned, but that list has since been pared down to nine. Should the policy pass, people could no longer be pulled over for these reasons:

  1. Failure to properly display or mount license plates, when the rear plate is still legible.
  2. Failure to display registration tags, or driving with a registration that expired more than a year ago.
  3. Failure to illuminate license plates.
  4. Driving without one taillight, or driving without taillights during the day.
  5. Driving with a missing or broken brake light.
  6. Affixing objects to windows or hanging objects from a rearview mirror.
  7. Failure to signal while turning or changing lanes.
  8. Sleeping in a car.
  9. All pedestrian stops, unless there is an immediate danger of a crash.

This newest iteration of the policy brings some substantive changes to the version that was tabled and discussed last month.

Stops of bicycles are no longer banned, and a previous ban on all stops for expired registration has been adjusted: Police will still be able to stop drivers with registration tags that are more than one year expired.

Commissioners told Mission Local that safety was the primary reason for removing bicycle stops from the list. After conversations with disability advocacy groups, Benedicto said, commissioners decided to remove the item, considering that disabled people and seniors “are often disproportionately impacted” by bicycle incidents.

Carter-Oberstone added that data showed SFPD officers rarely stop bicycles anyway, indicating that such stops are not necessarily pretextual.

Another change in the latest policy would require police to articulate on their body-worn camera why they made a stop, and to justify why they conducted a search or asked investigatory questions in cases where a full incident report is not required.

“As promised, we went through and took in some final feedback,” Benedicto said. Now, he said, he is ready to pass what he called a “very moderate” policy. “I think that we have done more than enough in terms of listening to feedback, and in terms of striking the right balance between positions.”

Who opposes the policy?

Not all the police commissioners are convinced that the policy would be effective. Commissioners Larry Yee, James Byrne, and Debra Walker, who were appointed by Mayor London Breed, have previously expressed opposition.

Walker told Mission Local that she is leaning toward a “no” vote tonight. She said that she agrees that pretext stops do lead to racial bias, and that the commission does need to act, but she does not think that preventing categories of enforcement is the answer.

“Just saying, ‘don’t pull people over;’ I am not convinced it will help,” said Walker.

She suggested running various pilots to see which approaches might work in San Francisco. These pilots might include banning pretext stops in limited areas, she said, but could also look into more training for officers, or even outreach to help people fix the vehicle equipment problems that often lead to stops.

“It’s important that people have current registration, which means current insurance,” said Walker. “It is important that their mechanical issues are resolved. This can be about outreach rather than enforcement without taking a tool away from police.”

Yee suggested in a recent commission discussion that reducing traffic enforcement could impact the SFPD’s ability to protect Chinatown and Bayview seniors from assault, although the policy would not affect police power in violent situations. The Asian Law Caucus, along with local Chinese and Asian American organizations, put out a statement of support for the new policy on Tuesday, maintaining that it would limit targeting of Asian Americans in police stops, without impacting public safety.

Some other jurisdictions have found success with pretext-stop restrictions, and research has shown that pretext stops rarely result in evidence of crimes. Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Oakland have all already imposed some restrictions with promising results. In Fayetteville, North Carolina, officers were directed to avoid minor traffic stops back in 2013, which apparently led to Black people being stopped less often, while crime remained unchanged.

At today’s rally, Carter-Oberstone remained resolute. “There is a right side and a wrong side of history on this issue,” he said, adding that the policy would be “a responsible step to reallocate our resources away from a failed policy and do what’s necessary to make the citizens of our city safer.”

The Police Commission will meet to vote on the new policy at 5:30 p.m. tonight. You can watch the meeting online on the SFGOV website. Mission Local will be live-blogging the meeting.

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DATA REPORTER. Will was born in the UK and studied English at Oxford University. After a few years in publishing, he absconded to the USA where he studied data journalism in New York. Will has strong views on healthcare, the environment, and the Oxford comma.

REPORTER. Eleni reports on policing in San Francisco. She first moved to the city on a whim more than 10 years ago, and the Mission has become her home. Follow her on Twitter @miss_elenius.

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  1. Do police in The City actually stop drivers for any reason – running lights, not stopping at stop signs, not signaling when changing lanes, etc, etc??? Brakes lights, tail lights, signal lights are for all of our safety. If you are hit by a car how do you identify the driver without the help of a license plate? We need much better driving and more enforcement.

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  2. The AsianLaw Caucus: ” the new policy would limit targeting of Asian Americans in police stops”. Asian stops – at least in the Berkeley study – were way below population representation. IOW, hardly.

    Although crime didn’t decrease, at least (hopefully) those tail lights, missing plates, and registration got fixed. That is a positive – which will probably go unaddressed with the new policy.

    As for cops citing more Red light runners … good luck. Probably just more donuts.

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