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Politics & Policy

Police seldom write traffic tickets in San Francisco. That’s costing the city millions

Police officers on motorcycles are conducting a traffic stop on a city street.
San Francisco police officers issue far fewer moving violation citations today than they used to in years past. | Source: Courtesy San Francisco Police Department

San Francisco has been missing out on about $4 million of revenue each year since police have cut back on traffic enforcement in the past decade, according to an analysis by The Standard.

Between 2014 and 2023, the number of police traffic citations fell by 96%, driven by staffing shortages and the department focusing on other types of crime. This declining pull-over rate has plagued police departments across the U.S.

In 2014, SFPD cited nearly 130,000 traffic violations, according to department data. That figure dropped to about 50,000 in 2019 before bottoming out in 2022 at about 4,000. Citation totals climbed slightly up to about 5,100 in 2023, though that increase was tiny compared with previous citation rates. 

Citation revenue plummeted as a result, though not always in lockstep with SFPD’s citation rate since the income also comes from other law enforcement agencies that pull people over in San Francisco.

The city’s inflation-adjusted income from moving violation citations peaked at $10.1 million in the 2016 fiscal year, then steadily shrank to $3.6 million in 2023, financial data shows.

When people pay for tickets they receive in San Francisco, the money goes to the Superior Court, which passes it on to the city. The pool of cash the court collects comes from all law enforcement agencies operating in the city, including SFPD and the California Highway Patrol, and is then divided between the city and state in a roughly 50-50 split. 

A police officer beside their motorcycle at night, pointing ahead, with emergency lights on.
Traffic enforcement in San Francisco is primarily conducted by officers riding motorcycles. | Source: Jeremy Chen/The Standard

Funding, or a lack thereof, has been central to San Francisco’s policing policy conversation. 

In March 2023, the city approved a $25 million budget supplement to pay for more police overtime work, over the objection of some supervisors. Then last fall, Supervisor Matt Dorsey proposed doling out generous signing bonuses to address chronic short-staffing in the police department. After the Controller’s Office figured the initiative could cost up to $300 million and Supervisor Ahsha Safaí tacked on a requirement that the idea be funded by a new tax, voters rejected it

Increasing traffic enforcement could benefit the police department and improve street safety at the same time, according to Safaí.

“It generates revenue to a [police] department that’s constantly asking for additional money for overtime,” Safaí said, adding that increased citation funds could go toward recruiting efforts to increase staffing.

The March wrong-way crash that killed a family of four in West Portal has renewed calls from San Francisco leaders, including Mayor London Breed, to push for Vision Zero. The decade-old Vision Zero aspiration of eliminating traffic fatalities has thus far failed to stem deaths on city streets. But officials and transportation activists alike see bringing back traffic enforcement as a key component to making progress.

There have been 12 San Francisco traffic fatalities so far this year, according to initial San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency estimates. That places the city on track to outstrip the 26 traffic fatalities in 2023.

While a couple million dollars each year from traffic citations isn’t going to solve San Francisco’s looming budget crisis, with a deficit that could climb to $1.4 billion by 2027, Supervisor Rafael Mandelman said he’d welcome the extra cash. It’s money that could go toward the Muni budget or expanding the quick-build program to install more street safety infrastructure, according to Mandelman.

A vigil with flowers, candles, signs saying "SAN FRANCISCO GRIEVES" and "OUR HEARTS ARE BROKEN," in front of a building.
Mourners honor victims of a fatal collision at a West Portal Muni bus stop in March 2024. | Source: Loren Elliott for The Standard

But it’s street safety over citation cash that has Mandelman urging the police department to prioritize traffic enforcement more than it has in recent years.

“I would like to have that additional funding for the general fund but the bigger problem is impacts on the streets for everyone as we see driving behavior getting worse and worse,” Mandelman said. 

“I believe that driving behavior today is far worse than it was 10 years ago,” Mandelman said. “People drive as if they are not going to see any consequences because of their bad driving. That’s actually a rational decision in San Francisco these days.”

“We’re looking to increase enforcement,” said Cmdr. Nicole Jones, who oversees the SFPD Traffic Company, as the unit is formally called. “It’s no secret that we have a staffing shortage so we’re going to have to be very precise and focus on the locations and violations that are causing the most harm.”

The department’s traffic company roster has dropped from 77 sworn officers in 2014 to 46 today. Twenty-two of those officers ride motorcycles and focus on traffic enforcement, while others in the unit are responsible for collision investigations, responding to stunt driving and other duties.

Meanwhile, the department-wide short-staffing has pulled traffic company officers away from their core duties to fill in for assignments on demonstrations, violence reduction and more, Jones explained at a September 2023 hearing. On top of that, officers outside of the traffic division used to do their own independent traffic enforcement. But the skeleton SFPD staff has been forced to be mostly reactive to 911 calls, leaving proactive tasks like traffic enforcement out of reach, according to Jones.

Cyclist and pedestrian waiting at a busy city intersection with blurred moving cars and traffic lights.
Pedestrians and cyclists wait on passing traffic at the intersection of Market and Octavia streets in San Francisco in March. | Source: Morgan Ellis/The Standard

At the same time, increased administrative requirements, such as a state law requiring officers to record demographic information about the people they stop, have significantly increased the amount of time each stop takes, according to Jones.

It’s not clear that additional funds, from traffic citations or elsewhere, would quickly remedy the staffing shortage.

“We’ve got the money,” said SFPD spokesperson Evan Sernoffsky. Rather, the biggest barrier is getting enough qualified recruits through the door, he explained, adding that the department has been hard at work streamlining its recruitment process and that it already pays officers more than almost any other major American city.

Choices by department and city leaders, not just short-staffing, are contributing to the continued low levels of traffic enforcement, according to Police Commissioner Max Carter-Oberstone. Allocating significant police resources to low-level drug enforcement and shutting down events like the Hill Bomb skating meetup are decisions that have exacerbated staffing problems, he said.

“We could have traffic enforcement if we wanted to, but we simply choose not to do it,” Carter-Oberstone said.

A man in a suit speaks at a podium.
San Francisco Police Commissioner Max Carter-Oberstone speaks at a City Hall press conference in January 2023. | Source: Camille Cohen/The Standard

A Police Commission policy barring the use of pretext police stops—using low-level offenses as an excuse to pull someone over to investigate them—is set to go into effect later this spring. The policy will not prohibit officers from stopping drivers for any of the most common causes of collisions and injuries, which are speeding, failing to yield to a pedestrian in a crosswalk, running a red light or stop sign and failing to yield while making a left or U-turn.

SFPD is scheduled to present a plan to increase traffic enforcement at a Board of Supervisors hearing later this month. While the department declined to provide a sneak peek of the detailed plan, automated enforcement will factor heavily in San Francisco’s traffic enforcement strategy moving forward, according to a spokesperson for Mayor London Breed.

San Francisco is poised to install 33 automated speed enforcement cameras, which will ticket speeding drivers, according to the mayor’s office.

The city already has more than a dozen red light cameras that automatically ticket motorists who run the red. Since 2019, those cameras have been used to issue over 56,000 citations, according to Sernoffsky. That figure, which isn’t included in SFPD’s data on traffic citations and may help explain why citation revenue hasn’t dropped as dramatically as the moving violation totals would seem to predict, will continue to grow as the city installs more cameras. Twenty intersections will be overseen by red light cameras, with one enforcing a no-right-on-red restriction, by 2026, according to SFMTA spokesperson Michael Roccaforte. 

Until SFPD can get staffed up, Breed has directed the department to conduct targeted enforcement of the city’s most dangerous intersections, her spokesperson said.

Those initiatives—combined with the fact that police staffing has stopped declining after a yearslong slide—may soon spell millions pouring back into city coffers from tickets. But for some city leaders, that’s just a cherry on top of addressing a far more pressing issue.

“I want traffic enforcement so that people are obeying traffic laws. I want there to be certainty that if you’re speeding or doing something dangerous on a San Francisco road that there are consequences for it,” Dorsey said. “The money is great, but honestly that is a distant second to the real priority, which is public safety.”