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SF decides to ban low-level traffic stops in close Police Commission vote

Max Carter-Oberstone of the San Francisco Police Commission at a press conference at City Hall advocating for ending all racially-biased traffic stops by SFPD on Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2023. | Camille Cohen/The Standard | Source: Camille Cohen/The Standard

In a contentious decision spurred by police pulling over Black drivers at disproportionately high rates, San Francisco’s Police Commission decided late Wednesday night to ban officers from making certain low-level traffic stops.

The vote to approve the proposal came after months of public scrutiny and changes to the plan that ultimately shrunk the proposed list of banned stops from 18 different types of offenses to nine, among them driving with an expired registration and driving with a broken taillight.

The proposal is meant to stop police from using low-level stops to go on fishing expeditions, or to pull over drivers because they have a hunch the person committed a crime but could not otherwise stop them for it. 

Critics say stops like this, known as pretextual stops, drive racial disparities.

“There are a cluster of low-level traffic stops that are just not yielding any public safety benefit for the city,” Commission Vice President Max Carter-Oberstone said. “But they do take up a lot of time and they do cost a lot of money and by curtailing those stops we can reallocate all of those law enforcement resources to other strategies that we know are effective.”

Akeylah Hernandez (bottom far left), Kaylah Williams May (bottom far right), and others attend a press conference at City Hall on Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2023 advocating for an end to racially biased traffic stops by the SFPD. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

By banning certain stops, San Francisco is joining the ranks of cities such as Pittsburgh and Philadelphia as well as the state of Virginia. Los Angeles has taken a softer approach, requiring officers to have documentable reasons for pulling a person over before making a pretext stop.

San Francisco’s ban includes various exceptions that would still allow officers to enforce the violations under certain circumstances. The commission also changed the proposal to replace all language around “banning” stops to “limiting” them as part of a compromise with Police Chief Bill Scott.

The ban has shaped up to be the latest battle over police reform in San Francisco after Carter-Oberstone first introduced the plan last May. It raised concerns that prohibiting certain stops would make the streets more treacherous for bicyclists and pedestrians, and take away a tool that San Francisco police use to catch dangerous criminals.

Even though Mayor London Breed appointed Carter-Oberstone to the commission, she blasted his proposal as “seriously problematic.”

“Banning the police from enforcing moving violations and dangerous behaviors that could result in injury or death makes absolutely no sense,” Breed told the Board of Supervisors last month.

But Carter-Oberstone was joined by Cindy Elias, the newly reappointed president, and Kevin Benedicto in pushing the draft forward. On Wednesday, with Jesus Yanez also in support, the policy passed.

“This is a pilot. This is nine offenses,” Benedicto said. “If it turns out some are wrong, I'll be the first to propose a motion that we remove them. If it turns out that we need to add some, I’ll be on there, too.”

Scott told the Police Commission he was close to supporting the proposal, but wanted additional tweaks to emphasize that the policy would deprioritize low-level traffic stops so that officers could focus on potentially dangerous offenses, rather than ban certain stops outright.

Police Chief Bill Scott at a press conference at SFPD headquarters | Camille Cohen/The Standard

San Francisco already has a false reputation for lawlessness, he said.

“That is the furthest thing from the truth, but that is the narrative that is out there,” the chief said.

Scott said he does, however, support curbing pretext stops. He called curtailing the tactic a “sea change for policing.”

The proposal will now be sent into labor negotiations with the San Francisco Police Officers Association—a process that legal observers have criticized for obstructing reforms by dragging on for months or even years.

Despite concerns about the plan, proponents say the proposal is designed to stop police from making stops for violations that do not often result in people getting hurt or killed on the streets. The banned stops also rarely lead to officers finding contraband on drivers such as guns or drugs.

“Every shred of available evidence and data as well as the experiences of other jurisdictions that have implemented other similar policies all point in the same direction that this will make San Francisco a safer place to live and work,” Carter-Oberstone said in an interview.

But commissioners Larry Yee and James Byrne voted against the policy.

While the commission solicited input on the proposal for months and held various public meetings, Yee argued that the Chinese and broader AAPI communities were left out of the process.

Police Commissioner Larry Yee attends a press conference in Chinatown in San Francisco on Monday, August 15, 2022. | Juliana Yamada/The Standard

“If you asked one-third of the citizens of San Francisco, ‘Do you know anything about pretext stops?’” Yee said. “They would have no idea about that.”

Commissioner Debra Walker said she was worried about the effect that the policy could have on traffic collisions and pedestrian deaths, which are on the rise.

However, Walker was absent at the time of the vote.

Byrne said he wanted to consider the additional tweaks Scott floated at a later date.

Some places that have banned traffic stops have seen success.

Harold Medlock, the retired police chief of Fayetteville, N.C., told his officers to stop pulling people over for certain minor offenses in 2013. Medlock said his order was met with resistance from many officers and residents who thought crime would go out of control. Instead, Medlock said, crime largely went down and people trusted the police more when officers did pull them over.

“We all of a sudden became the popular kids on the block,” said Medlock, who spoke to the commission before the vote.

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