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San Francisco police watchdog votes to curb ‘biased’ traffic stops

A man sits at a desk with nameplates, focused intently during a meeting.
Police Commission Vice President Max Carter-Oberstone is a leading proponent of the policy to restrict the use pretext stops by officers. | Source: Benjamin Fanjoy for The Standard

With a looming election threatening to dilute its powers, San Francisco’s Police Commission cast a divided vote Wednesday to push through a controversial policy meant to stop officers from making biased traffic stops.

The commission voted 4-3 to enact the policy restricting the use of so-called pretext stops by officers, despite the possibility that the police union could file a lawsuit seeking to bar the new rules from going into effect.

The policy is meant to curb the use of pretext stops, which is when an officer pulls over a driver for a low-level offense—using it as a pretext—because they have a hunch that a more serious crime may have been committed. While the police union has argued that pretext stops are a useful tool for seizing guns and drugs, critics worry that police target Black and Latino drivers with the practice.

No one mentioned it during the hearing, but the vote comes with less than two weeks to spare before voters will decide on a consequential ballot measure that would dull the body’s ability to pass controversial policies.

Beginning in 90 days, the policy will bar officers from pulling over drivers solely for a small subset of vehicle code violations, such as failing to signal properly or driving with long-expired registration tags. However, the policy leaves some room for officers to enforce these offenses, such as when a vehicle is parked or when the offense is not the only reason for pulling over a driver.

Police Commission Vice President Max Carter-Oberstone, one of the leading proponents behind the proposal, said that the policy will deprioritize officers making certain stops that rarely result in arrests or gun seizures.

“These stops are wasting time and money,” Carter-Oberstone said ahead of the vote. “We need to be focusing on the core duties of the police department that actually improve people's lives.”

Wednesday’s vote was split between commissioners who believed the policy was the right way to go about reducing racial disparities in traffic enforcement, and others who seemed as if they weren’t convinced, despite previously supporting a similar version of the proposal in a unanimous vote last April.

Commissioner Jim Byrne, who joined commissioners Debra Walker and Larry Yee in opposing the policy, said that he supported ending biased stops. But Byrne questioned whether approving the policy would achieve that goal.

Byrne said more important than passing a policy that could be used to punish officers for making pretext stops was changing police culture.

“If the rank and file of the police department cannot be brought along to the importance of this issue and the only way that the commission thinks that they can be brought around is by punishing them if they don't, then we have a problem,” Byrne said.

Walker voted against the policy after expressing trepidation that the policy would restrict officers from enforcing state laws.

She also noted that, since Jan. 1, officers throughout California have been required to tell drivers their reasons for pulling them over under a new state law that she hoped would have the desired effect of reducing racial disparities.

“We are doing that now,” Walker said. “That is what we're doing without changing a thing.”

But the commissioners who supported the policy argued that there was ample evidence the policy would reduce racial disparities without impacting public safety. They also emphasized that the proposal had undergone a robust public meeting process that included input from rank-and-file officers.

Looming election threat

Wednesday’s vote could mark the last time that the commission, which has long served as a powerful check on the San Francisco Police Department, can independently approve a contentious policy without first enduring a cumbersome public meeting process envisioned by Mayor London Breed.

Proposition E, which the mayor is asking voters to approve March 5, would require the commission to hold a public meeting at every police station in the city before it even considers changing rules for officers. Only the chief of police would have the power to waive the process.

The mayor designed her measure to rein in the progressive-controlled commission, which she accuses of putting reform politics over public safety and making policy decisions that get in the way of officers doing their jobs.

She is proposing her measure in the same year that she faces a tough reelection campaign against other moderates, such as former Supervisor Mark Farrell, who are challenging her record on public safety.

Joe Arellano, a spokesperson for the Prop. E campaign funded by the police union and tech heavyweights Chris Larsen and Ron Conway, called the pretext stop policy a prime example of the commission going “too far.”

“The commission continues to meddle in operational matters best decided by the officers that implement the policies in the real world,” Arellano said.

A more appealing version of the proposal would have directed officers to avoid using pretext stops while letting the department figure out the more granular details for operationalizing the policy, Arellano said.

A possible lawsuit coming

Whether the San Francisco Police Officers Association will move forward with filing a lawsuit to block the policy has yet to be seen.

In a letter to the city earlier this month, the union declared an impasse after bargaining with the city over the proposal to restrict pretext stops for more than a year, demanding that the city enter arbitration over the policy.

The union argued that the Police Commission was overstepping its legal authority by restricting officers from enforcing the vehicle code.

Ahead of the vote, a Breed spokesperson said the mayor wanted the commission to “work with the union” on the issues it raised.

“This is not about ramming a policy through based on theory,” said Jeff Cretan, a spokesperson for the mayor. “It’s about working with the rank and file to establish rules that can work for officers on the ground.”

But the commissioners who voted to support the policy noted that the proposal had languished in negotiations with the union for more than a year. They also argued that they were on firm legal ground in passing the policy.

“The POA is going to do what the POA is going to do,” Commissioner Kevin Benedicto, one of the other main proponents of the policy, told The Standard.

The commission first sent an early version of the proposal restricting pretext stops into labor negotiations with a 4-2 vote in January 2023.

It later unanimously sent a revised version of the proposal into negotiations in April 2023 that garnered support from Police Chief Bill Scott.

The latest version adopted Wednesday is not expected to be bargained over with the police union. It is set to go into effect in 90 days, unless the police department asks for another 30 days to train its officers.