After a marathon meeting that lasted nearly six hours, San Francisco’s Police Commission in a 4-2 vote tonight passed a contentious new policy banning nine traffic stops.

Discussions on the new policy lasted about three hours, and dozens of public commenters used their two minutes to speak in support of ending pretextual stops.

These stops, for minor infractions like a missing front license plate, a broken taillight, or jaywalking, are often used as a pretext to question and search drivers, and disproportionately impact communities of color.

The commissioners behind the new policy hope to reduce such disparities while freeing up police resources to focus on stops that directly impact public safety. The forces in favor of the ban rallied earlier today.

We were there all night and followed along the hours-long discussion. Read below:

11:22 p.m. The commission takes a five-minute break. Commissioners Carter-Oberstone and Benedicto join their supporters in the hallway to revel in the victory for a few moments, and snap some photos.

11:20 p.m. Byrne is now making another appeal to consider Chief Scott’s proposed language. Elias says she will have this posted on the website and will try to agendize it in coming weeks.

11:17 p.m. The motion passes with four yeses from Elias, Carter-Oberstone, Yáñez, and Benedicto.

Byrne and Yee vote no, as expected. Walker is no longer present, and does not vote.

11:16 p.m. That’s it on public comment! Voting now.

11:16 p.m. One caller calls the change in the agenda a “bait and switch,” and says the vote should be delayed. (Changes to the order of agenda items is not uncommon.)

11:09 p.m. Everyone seems a bit restless. Several commissioners are scrolling their phones, Byrne has his face rested in his hand.

Snacks are still being passed around the audience.

11:05 p.m. Valerie Ibarra, the Public Defender’s Office spokesperson, warns opponents of the new policy: “You are voting to embolden and reinforce the power of our armed civil servants.”

11:02 p.m. Lots of calls are coming in to support the new policy. People are sharing their experiences of being harassed by police once they’ve been stopped for a minor infraction.

10:46 p.m. That was the last in-person speaker. On to remote callers! This could be a while yet, and it’s already been five hours. Commissioners are taking bathroom breaks, and some members of the audience are filtering out.

10:42 p.m. Speaker says he’s a law student from LA, who came to SF thinking it was a liberal bastion. “I’ve been sadly disappointed that it’s worse than in Los Angeles,” he says.

10:39 p.m. Julie Traun from the Bar Association says she’s seen the department evolve over the years, and seen how many SFPD policies have changed. This, she says, was thanks in part to a watchful former Police Commission.

10:31 p.m. Karen Fleshman: “As a white soccer mom named Karen,” she says she is also profiled: Officers automatically treat her with the utmost respect. She knows this is very different from the experience that many people of color encounter when pulled over by police.

10:26 p.m. If you want to hear public comment, or comment yourself, go to SFGovTV’s government channel here!

10:24 p.m. Angela Chan, who works with the Public Defender’s Office, mentions cases where she has represented people of color, including Asian Americans, who have been impacted by police violence. This comment is apparently directed toward Commissioner Yee.

10:22 p.m. William Palmer II, a formerly incarcerated man who works in re-entry and is the editor of the San Francisco Bay View newspaper, shares a story of his own. While he was on parole, Palmer was pulled over, searched “with a fine-toothed comb,” then allowed to go on his way. The officer had his hand on his gun.

For some, he says it may seem easy to delay a policy like tonight’s. “It’s not that easy for us,” he says. “It could be our lives.”

10:18 p.m. Public comment could go on for a while. About 10 people are lined up in person, and likely many more are waiting to speak remotely. Speakers each get two minutes.

10:16 p.m. Jennifer Friedenbach from the Coalition on Homelessness is now speaking. There isn’t an issue when someone sleeps in their car, she says.

These are people who are already struggling, Friedenbach says, and when they are targeted and receive tickets that they cannot pay, they end up even worse off. She mentions a man she met with recently who lived in his RV but, unable to pay his tickets, ended up losing it and becoming homeless.

10:13 p.m. It seems that commissioners Elias, Carter-Oberstone, Benedicto and Yáñez are prepared to pass the policy as-is, without adding Scott’s new language.

Scott’s edits, for those who missed it, seem to be focused on codifying the policy’s intention to deprioritize minor traffic stops and focus on the stops that would impact traffic collisions and harm to the public.

10:08 p.m. Scott from Stop Crime SF notes that this policy is different from Fayetteville’s policy, discussed earlier tonight. He doesn’t agree that police should be told not to enforce certain laws. “We believe that this policy means more crime, and more crashes,” he says. “Sí, se puede.”

10:06 p.m. First up is GLIDE’s senior policy manager, Wesley Saver. He says he’s tried to meet with Commissioner Yee and got no response.

This policy represents an important step toward ending racial disparities that other jurisdictions have already taken.

10:04 p.m. Now, on to public comment!

10:03 p.m. Benedicto repeats his motion to pass the policy tonight, with stipulations limiting the police union’s involvement and including the Department of Police Accountability.

10:01 p.m. Scott clarifies that recent removal of the word “banned” was “a gamechanger” for him. The changes he’s suggesting now only became relevant since that removal.

Elias says that she and her fellow commissioners have made 95 percent of the changes that Scott has suggested.

Scott agrees.

9:56 p.m. Elias inserts herself into the queue of commissioners waiting to speak. Commissioners have had the ability to bring forth changes for several months now, she says, and calls it unfair that her colleagues are attempting to derail tonight’s vote.

9:54 p.m. “No other actor or entity has the authority to delay because they have a last-minute comment,” Benedicto says. He’s happy to consider the language later.

9:52 p.m. These changes could have been recommended since May of 2022, Carter-Oberstone says. “It’s just not appropriate to delay this vote to do that.”

9:50 p.m. “Something so important can wait 10 more days,” Byrne appeals. “The idea is to bring as many San Franciscans along with the policy. … Let’s not do this stuff ad-hoc.”

His fellow commissioners appear to be growing tired of the stand that Walker, Yee, and Byrne (all mayoral appointees to the commission) are making. As are people in the audience: Several people are standing to stretch, more than four hours into the meeting.

9:49 p.m. Scott tries to explain why his edits came in so late.

“Fair enough,” says Elias, and moves on to the next commissioner. Scott suddenly has a sour look on his face.

9:47 p.m. Carter-Oberstone is pleased to hear what sounds like a significant shift in the Police Department’s stance on the policy.

However, he says that the edit from the Chief came the day before the vote, and says it’s not appropriate to delay the policy at this stage — though he says he’s “totally open to it.”

Chief of police
Chief Bill Scott listens to public comment before the Police Commission. Photo taken Jan. 11, 2023 by Eleni Balakrishnan.

9:45 p.m. “If the department is gonna be behind it, I make a motion that you give us the language before Friday, so that it can be inserted,” Byrne says.

Walker has the new language; she suggests, adding this context, that the aim is to “focus on traffic and public safety issues and those violations that increase the risk of harm and traffic collisions.” She seconds Byrne’s motion.

9:42 p.m. Byrne asks if Scott’s language is being added to the policy.

Scott is pleased that the policy has shifted away from language about a “ban,” which he has opposed since day one. “As a leader of this department, I can get behind it,” Scott says.

9:39 p.m. Now Yee brings up a topic he raised last month, about feeling left out of the policy-writing process. (Quorum laws prevent more than three commissioners from meeting at one time, so only the three commissioners working on the policy can attend working group meetings.)

Elias disputes this, and outlines all the opportunities Yee has had to learn about the policy and discuss it with herself, or her colleagues working on it. Audience members snap in support.

9:36 p.m. Yee has scheduled another listening session, and Benedicto says he will be there.

9:36 p.m. Elias asks Yee if he shared a copy of the new policy with these organizations, since he’s had a copy since early December.

Yee says he did, and he met with them this week. But, he says, “more than one-third of the citizens of San Francisco” (referring to the Asian American population) don’t know about this policy.

9:33 p.m. “This policy hasn’t been passed, as far as I know,” Yee says. Commissioners and audience members laugh in confusion.

Yee continues: What is the timeline for passing this policy? Is this the final version?

9:33 p.m. Yee says the organization’s concern is “public safety.” He lists names of those who missed the memo on the new traffic policy.

9:30 p.m. This request isn’t being addressed just yet. Benedicto says he’s happy to meet with the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, but is still ready to pass this policy tonight.

Addressing a comment from Yee earlier, Benedicto says he’s not trying to skirt any labor laws in limiting the POA’s input during meet-and-confer. In fact, he says, he wants to adhere to them strictly.

9:25 p.m. Scott asks the commission to consider his recent suggestion, to make it clearer to officers what they can do.

In the section where officers are asked to “not” stop for nine listed offenses, Scott suggests language about “deprioritization” and “limiting those stops.”

Apparently, he’s asking to leave room for police to still make these stops in some cases.

9:20 p.m. Scott has items in the policy that he doesn’t fully agree with, but says the document has come a long way. “I want to make the best of what this commission passes.” He plans to work with his officers to make sure they understand it, “even with those who don’t like it.”

He wants to end the narrative that police don’t do anything in San Francisco.

9:18 p.m. “We are agreeable to curtailing pretext stops,” Scott says, noting that this will be a big change, as traffic stops have long been used as an investigative tool by police departments around the country.

9:16 p.m. Chief Scott: “We know that disparities are a real issue in this city, and we have to address them.” He wants to highlight parts of the policy that are “cutting-edge,” and others he doesn’t quite agree with.

9:14 p.m. Walker asks about the “effect on the shared public space.” She notes traffic crashes and pedestrian deaths have increased this year, and is against a ban on moving violations.

(The latest version of the policy would prevent police from initiating a stop for drivers who don’t signal continuously for 100 feet before a turn, an infraction that commissioners found rarely connected to crashes. Officers would still be able to stop drivers for unsafe turns or lane changes.)

9:11 p.m. Yáñez says he rejects “the narrative” that crime is out of control. In 2022, there were 53,000 violent crimes. In 2019, there were 57,000. Even with 500 fewer officers, he says, there have been fewer violent crimes reported.

He is ready to move forward with this policy. He turns to the audience: “As a person of color, as an immigrant,” he says he, too, has been impacted by traumatic police stops that unnecessarily escalated, referencing a public comment made in December.

9:06 p.m. Yáñez echoes Carter-Oberstone, that “the status quo is unacceptable.” He adds that this is “not a radical policy;” in fact, the SFPD has asked to stop enforcing some of these minor traffic stops.

9:04 p.m. Carter-Oberstone has some minor language and typo edits to the policy. He seconds Benedicto’s motion.

9:02 p.m. Carter-Oberstone also has a response for Yee, who, earlier tonight, was “echoing the same talking point” about the reduction in traffic stops in 2021. This was during the pandemic, he says.

9:00 p.m. She clarifies for Yee, looking directly at him: This policy does not prohibit police from stopping unsafe drivers. “The top complaints we get from IA and DPA … have been complaints regarding officers not investigating, not taking reports,” Elias says.

“Do we want our officers focusing on the person who ran a red light? Or do we want the officer to focus on the person that doesn’t have a front license plate?”

8:58 p.m. Elias says that extensive outreach has been done, but says that people who complain about the policy often haven’t read it.

(If you watch past discussions of the traffic enforcement policy, it is evident that Yee himself may not have read the policy.)

8:56 p.m. Yee goes on, jumping between topics, about what will happen if drivers without registration enter the city.

Regarding Benedicto’s suggestion to limit the police union’s involvement to just labor issues: “Hate to see a lawsuit come through!”

Yee says he’s not necessarily opposed to the goals behind the policy, but often only expresses opposition to the policy.

8:53 p.m. Commissioner Larry Yee says that the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, a civil rights organization, was not contacted to discuss this policy.

“You need to reach out to your community!”

8:51 p.m. Benedicto makes a motion to pass the policy, with stipulations that limit the POA’s ability to bargain beyond their scope.

He also wants to deputize the Department of Police Accountability’s policy director, Janelle Caywood, as a subject matter expert, and send her to bargaining meetings.

8:49 p.m. Benedicto raises concerns over stalling tactics that the police union has used in the past: If the policy passes tonight, it will go to “meet-and-confer” with the POA, a process that can drag on for months, or longer. He notes that the commission is not required to discuss fundamental policy with the POA, and hopes the union will approach the next step in good faith.

8:47 p.m. “Some that compromise leaves everybody a little bit unhappy,” Benedicto says, so this policy seems to have succeeded. The Coalition to End Biased Stops might prefer the policy ban 25 infractions, though it now only lists nine. Audience members laugh, and nod.

8:46 p.m. The Police Commission has taken in plenty of feedback and data before moving this policy forward, Benedicto says. The outreach has been reasonable, and so has the outcome.

He lists several public meetings and efforts taken to hear every voice and follow a data-driven approach.

8:42 p.m. Benedicto, who has worked on the policy closely with Carter-Oberstone, joins the conversation. He says that data in a recent assessment showed that no guns were recovered for many minor traffic offenses.

8:39 p.m. But one thing is concerning, says Carter-Oberstone: “The folks that are urging us to maintain the status quo” haven’t gotten as much scrutiny as supporters of the policy have.

Last month, he says, a commissioner asked a person presenting stop data if any of the stops that the policy plans to be ban cause injuries or deaths. The commissioner, Carter-Oberstone says, “without any basis” responded that maybe the data was “all wrong.”

8:36 p.m. This policy has two goals, says Carter-Oberstone. One is to “use data and evidence to make the most of our scarce public safety resources.” Data shows traffic stops for minor infractions don’t turn up much in terms of contraband or weapons, and police can better spend their time on other, more serious crimes.

Secondly, the city has a “moral and constitutional obligation to treat people equally under the law, regardless of background.” Pretext stops disproportionately affect communities of color, and passing this policy aims to reduce those disparities.

8:33 p.m. Long list of thank-yous continues. Carter-Oberstone thanks Crispin Jones, a member of the SFPD’s Traffic Company, whose “knowledge of the traffic code is encyclopedic,” and was invaluable in developing this policy.

Jones was “always less concerned with getting his way than with making this policy work in real life.”

8:31 p.m. Carter-Oberstone thanks his fellow commissioners who have worked with him on this policy, and thanks the commission staff that have worked behind the scenes to make the process move smoothly, from taking in hundreds of emails from the community to organizing working group meetings.

He thanks members of the Coalition to End Biased Stops, many of whom are in the audience wearing matching stickers and respond with quiet snaps.

8:27 p.m. We’re back! Elias opens up the floor back up for discussion.

7:20 p.m. Elias is letting Medlock, who’s on the east coast, log off. She continues this matter; the commission will go through the rest of the agenda items in order now.

Vote and public comment on the new policy will be resumed later in the evening. Stay tuned!

7:10 p.m. One of the stops that may be banned if tonight’s policy passes is a moving violation, Walker says, which she is concerned about. She asks about how to get data on different types of stops.

Several studies have been done on San Francisco’s traffic stops specifically, including the racial disparities in such stops and their typically low yield rates.

7:07 p.m. Commissioner Debra Walker, attending remotely, has some questions. Did any other agency “pick up the slack,” Walker asks? Who let people know about lapsed registrations, missing license plates?

Medlock says no one did.

7:03 p.m. Yee asks about red-light traffic cameras, which are illegal in California. Medlock believes in using these cameras to ticket unsafe drivers who run stoplights and stop signs. This type of technology allows officers to engage in other forms of crime-fighting.

7:02 p.m. “It really comes down to, are those stops making a difference?” Medlock says. If consent searches are being conducted, it’s important to check: “What are you getting out of it? … is it really something that’s worth your while?”

He tells Yee to check whether the stops are having an impact on traffic or pedestrian safety. (San Francisco saw a huge leap in the number of pedestrian fatalities in 2022.)

7:01 p.m. Commissioner Larry Yee asks Medlock to compare San Francisco’s and Fayetteville’s stops. In 2019, San Francisco had more than 100,000 stops, and in 2021, stops had dropped to 27,000.

6:58 p.m. Commissioner Kevin Benedicto thanks Medlock for speaking before the commission. “Culture matters and the leadership matters, and the bold action that is backed by data can yield tremendous positive results for officers, for the community, for everyone.”

6:57 p.m. Commissioner Jesús Gabriel Yáñez is asking questions now. He’s impressed by what sounds like a great example of community policing.

Medlock remembers a bias training he was forced to attend, that he was trying to get out of.

Two hours in, he surprised himself with a realization: “Man, I am carrying some hidden biases.” He leaned in, and noticed two fellow disengaged attendees doing the same.

6:52 p.m. Another change Medlock made was to assign officers to specific neighborhoods, ensuring that “day in and day out,” officers worked in the same areas of the city. “Our intention was that the officers would spend more time in the neighborhoods, would engage with the community,” Medlock says.

He saw the culture begin to shift between the police and the community.

6:48 p.m. “You have a good man there in Chief Scott,” Medlock says. He hopes SFPD’s command staff is trained to step up to the plate if Scott were to retire, much as he hopes those in Fayetteville will now that he’s gone.

6:47 p.m. After his retirement, Medlock says, “an outsider” chief was brought in, and many of his policies were reversed, he says. “I can’t even begin to tell you how discouraging it is,” he says.

Background on Medlock’s impact in Fayetteville, North Carolina here.

6:45 p.m. Byrne points out that racial disparities with drug arrests are still a problem in Fayetteville, and killings by Fayetteville police are higher than other parts of the country. Byrne acknowledges that Medlock is no longer the chief, but still wants to know.

6:44 p.m. Byrne asks if disparities reduced after Medlock implemented his limits on pretext stops in 2013, and told officers to focus on the five moving violations mentioned previously.

They trended down, Medlock says, through 2016. “If they’re looking at the violation,” Medlock says, “rarely can they see the race or the gender of the driver.”

6:42 p.m. Commissioner Jim Byrne to Medlock: Is there an issue with racial disparities in these stops?

Medlock says yes, there were disparities in stops, consent searches, arrests out of those traffic stops. Fayetteville is very close to being evenly split in Black and white residents.

6:40 p.m. “Everybody in Fayetteville had my phone number,” Medlock says. “Everybody in Fayetteville still has my phone number.” Commissioners laugh.

6:39 p.m. Medlock: I went directly to those people who were voicing those concerns. “You can’t imagine who i’ve met with,” he laughs. He went to wealthy neighborhoods, rotary clubs, a late-afternoon toddy gathering.

“I faced them straight on, and asked them to just give us an opportunity,” Medlock says. These groups gave him a chance, and they “became great partners,” at times providing constructive criticism.

6:36 p.m. “How did you deal with the false narratives that were out there?” asks Elias. “How did you get buy-in” from city leaders?

6:36 p.m. In areas where data was lacking, he says, he got more hands-on. “Start counting it yourself,” Medlock says.

6:34 p.m. How do you get the infrastructure together to collect data? Scott asks.

Departments across the state of North Carolina were collecting officers’ reports, but many were not using this information at the time, Medlock says. He began using it to spot trends and noticed that traffic stops weren’t being made in the places where traffic incidents were actually happening.

6:31 p.m. “My folks started to realize that I was not crazy,” Medlock says. The teams all worked together.

6:30 p.m. Commission President Cindy Elias puts Chief Scott on the spot, and asks if he has anything to say.

Scott says his team has done a lot of research into Medlock’s work, but wants to know: How did everyone work together to make these changes alongside the Collaborative Reform Initiative changes?

6:24 p.m. Medlock wants to add: Officers’ use of deadly force went down “drastically.” His department’s motto became “slow it down.”

6:23 p.m. It’s unclear what impact this discussion may be having on the 15+ police officers and their supporters, who are stoically seated together and dressed in dark suits on one side of tonight’s audience.

6:20 p.m. Medlock says he cut out his command staff and went directly to his officers, unfiltered. He ensured that he kept an open door to hear issues from beat officers, too.

“It took a lot of effort, it took a lot of time, but the work that we did started to pay off very, very shortly,” Medlock says.

6:18 p.m. What got officers to ultimately overcome their resistance? asks Carter-Oberstone.

Medlock says he would ask his officers: “How many guns did you get out of those traffic stops? How many drugs did you get out of those consent searches?” Officers began to realize that maybe their time could be better spent.

6:15 p.m. Medlock remembers one convicted felon responsible for six murders, that no one wanted to speak out against. But his department, along with the FBI, was able to investigate and apprehend the man — he will be in prison until Medlock is dead, he says.

The man had been stopped in “dozens” of traffic stops, but “we never found anything on this guy,” Medlock says.

6:10 p.m. Carter-Oberstone has a question: After officers started searching fewer cars, how did officers work to get guns off the streets?

We returned to criminal investigations, Medlock says. He was asked similar questions by his officers early on. “My response was, ‘Let’s be smarter than they are.'”

6:08 p.m. Then he turned his focus to training on bias and shootings. His officers ended up working to train officers at other departments. “It was a way of life in Fayetteville, North Carolina,” Medlock says.

6:06 p.m. Crime went down in nearly every category, Medlock says, including assault with deadly weapons and homicides. Injuries to officers dropped, as did police shootings.

6:04 p.m. The department implemented the policy in 2013. Traffic stops rose, but, he says, they were focused on moving violations instead of the minor violations that pretext stops often pursue.

6:00 p.m. Medlock directed his officers to focus on five issues: Speeding, reckless driving, DWI, etc. Those are the things that kill people.

“As you can probably imagine, everybody in the police department was really really happy about that,” Medlock jokes.

5:59 p.m. During regulatory stops, for infractions like out-of-date tags, officers found ways to at times “coerce” consent to search. But the yield rates of these searches, Medlock says, were “very low” — one-tenth of 1 percent.

5:56 p.m. When he arrived, he met with “everyone.” Medlock quickly learned that there was a problem, he says, though not one that the police department or wealthier neighborhoods necessarily recognized.

5:53 p.m. Medlock says he was hired to fix a struggling police department. He did a lot of research before he went — “For an old country boy, I’m pretty data-driven,” he says.

5:52 p.m. Harold Medlock, former police chief of Fayetteville, North Carolina, is attending tonight’s meeting remotely. Commissioner Max Carter-Oberstone is introducing him and his long history in law enforcement.

Medlock, in 2013, limited pretext stops and saw results.

5:51 p.m. Item 8, discussion of the new pretext stop policy, is being taken out of order and will begin now.

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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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8 Comments

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  1. I walk and bike in the Mission.
    I really hate cars that are missing plates. Lately I’ve been seeing lots of cars blowing through stop signs and reds with completely dark tinted windows, no plates.

    A few months ago I saw a car with a homemade plate, that was a new one.

    I hope SFPD pulls over these cars. I guess they weren’t pulling them over before last night either.

  2. Eleini,

    That’s the best I’ve ever seen anyone cover a story about a Public Meeting.

    Your photos rock like Hollywood too.

    I’m a big ML admirer.

    Happy New Year

    h.

  3. As a road user of many modes (bike, car, foot) I’m disappointed that not using turn signals was included in this list. Most of the other violations/pretexts qualified as victimless crimes, but not signaling is a risk to everyone.

  4. More danger for everyone. More bad drivers. Less consequences. More pedestrians at risk. SF vision ZERO has NO chance. SFPD will do less because their own government keeps telling them to do less. Police commission has just proved to us they are not for safety.

  5. thank you Eleni! For a wonderful, thorough job reporting the statements and calls, and sticking with it for over 5 hours. I listened to some of it, but reading you was much more entertaining.

    1. Marc,

      I can remember listening to Jake McGoldrick at 3 am talking about an idea of a rocket propelled escape capsule idea for apartments high up in luxury condos.

      Seriously.

      I watched for many years and Peskin has the record for efficiency.

      Once did a Full Board in 43 minutes Flat, he and Gloria and they had to do the Pledge of Allegiance too.

      h.