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San Francisco’s ‘soft approach’ to illegal sideshows isn’t working, SFPD critics say

“There’s only a tactical approach [to stopping a sideshow] if you get in front of it,” said a former Antioch police chief. | Source: Courtesy KGO-TV/ABC7

San Francisco’s ‘soft approach’ to illegal sideshows isn’t working, SFPD critics say

On Saturday night in multiple locations across San Francisco—from The Embarcadero to the Mission to the Excelsior—a loud, dangerous, frenetic scene played out: illegal sideshows, in which cars peel out and do donuts in front of hordes of onlookers. At the Ferry Building sideshow, hundreds cheered as a vehicle caught fire, and fireworks erupted into the air. 

Such scenes remain common on San Francisco and Bay Area streets, as the popular and unsanctioned street takeovers continue to vex law enforcement. But lately, critics in and out of law enforcement have contended that San Francisco should tackle the problem more forcefully, pointing out that neighboring communities have used aggressive tactics to send stronger messages to would-be sideshow participants. 

The San Francisco Police Department’s leadership has said the agency is doing what it can, even creating a special response unit to deal with sideshows. But three former officers with knowledge of department tactics say that while enforcing the law is tough—regardless of the tactics used—due to the spontaneity and mobility of such events and the danger to officers and bystanders, the city’s leaders have chosen a policy that prioritizes safety to the exclusion of confronting perpetrators in the act.

“Our primary focus, when we respond to these sideshows, is to break them up,” Chief Bill Scott told KTVU Tuesday in an interview about the weekend’s incidents. Scott said that the department is now taking the post-incident follow-up steps that often lead to arrests and car seizures.

While the department declined to provide additional information on tactics and investigative techniques, the three former officers laid out the process SFPD and other departments often use to apprehend and stop sideshows. They also explained why the events are so difficult to stop and how the department thinks about them. 

Much of the department’s current approach was born in 2020 when rules of engagement for sideshows were created along with a specialty unit, the Stunt Driving Response Unit, an ad hoc group of officers housed mostly in the Traffic Company and Special Operations Bureau. 

That same year, new legislation was passed by Supervisor Ahsha Safaí giving the department impounding powers for drivers caught in sideshows. Before then, residents often complained that the department merely watched as sideshows occurred, only stepping in if violence erupted. 

Now, every summer, as the temperature rises and sideshows increase, the department mobilizes the Stunt Driving unit, a former officer said.

Another front line of defense is scouring social media, where many sideshows are initially organized and promoted, said the former officers. If SFPD or another department sees an event posted online, it typically moves to coordinate a response plan.

When an impending sideshow  location has been clearly identified, resources are concentrated nearby, lying in wait. When there is awareness of a planned sideshow, the department can often stymie an event before it even begins, Scott said. 

“There’s only a tactical approach if you get in front of it,” said former Antioch police chief and longtime SFPD officer Steve Ford. 

Circular black marks left on roadway tarmac litter an intersection seen from above in daylight after nighttime stunt driving
Sideshows like those seen Sunday in San Francisco and Oakland litter intersections with damage. | Source: Jane Tyska/East Bay Times/Getty Images

In other jurisdictions, like San Jose and Oakland, when police respond ahead of time, officers stage tow trucks and set up a perimeter to stop anyone from leaving. Spike strips are thrown down to funnel participants through a checkpoint where arrests, citations and towing take place, explained one former officer. 

In Antioch, when the department gets ahead of an event, officers cite and arrest participants and impound cars at the scene too, Ford said. 

In the past, the San Francisco police have also impounded cars at sideshows and cited participants.

The most common citations at sideshows in San Francisco are exhibition speeding, which is a violation of the state vehicle code. But drivers are also cited for everything from illegally tinted windows and illegal mufflers to failing to have a license or vehicle registration. Sideshow interdictions often also include arrests for illegal firearms.

In San Francisco, the department has  received aid from Oakland and CHP, whose helicopters track fleeing drivers until they run out of gas or abandon their vehicles, said one former officer. The department may soon use drones to track cars in the future following the passage of Prop E. 

When there is no intelligence, and a department is rushing to respond to an in-progress sideshow, it’s a different situation. “At that point you are just trying to mitigate the activity,” Ford said. 

In such cases, department officials say they concentrate on simply breaking up the event as soon as possible to reduce the chances of someone getting hurt. Even with dozens of officers at the scene, multiple cars and crowds of hundreds can be hard to safely manage. 

“It’s really incredibly difficult to handle,” said one former officer. “You try not to engage because it’s so dangerous.”

Two police officers in uniform shine a flashlight into a parked white sedan parked next to a large wall at nighttime.
San Jose police cited over 720 people, impounded 19 vehicles and made 82 juvenile contact reports related to a sideshow in November 2022. | Source: Courtesy San Jose Police Department

Scott has said in the past that sending officers head-on into large crowds at night is not only hazardous for them but could result in those officers having to fire their weapons. Instead, a measured and planned approach is what the department has prioritized.  

Once the police on the scene break up an event, the department’s efforts focus on collecting evidence for follow-up enforcement, which can result in arrests and impounding the cars of participants for up to 30 days. 

The department said it did not readily have data on arrests, citations or the number of impounded vehicles related to its efforts. But DataSF shows 22 separate sideshow incidents where police were called have occurred since January. (It’s likely that many other sideshows have occurred and dispersed without police ever being alerted.) In only five instances did police activity result in citations or arrests at those events, the data shows. 

Scott said at an April 14 Police Commission meeting that he believes the department’s deterrence has been succeeding.  “I think the message is getting out there from what we see on social media.” That month alone, according to a department press release, there were three separate sideshows interrupted by the department in the Mission, Lakeview and the Ingleside.

Scott has differentiated between regular sideshows and stunt driving events that involve motorcycles and dirt bikes. Those remain a unique problem that the department has yet to find a way to address. 

“It’s really, really challenging tactically to deal with motorcycles,” he said at a different commission meeting. Dirt bikes can more easily escape as they can go on the sidewalks and go off road, he pointed out. But, in some instances, officers have done follow-up investigations that led to vehicle seizures and arrests.

Not everyone is a fan of the SFPD’s approach. 

One former officer says that San Francisco has become a destination for sideshows precisely because it does not stop them in their tracks like other jurisdictions, despite places like Oakland continuing to have a problem with sideshows. 

“They are terrorizing people,” said the officer, but the department’s “primary focus is not to have conflict with anyone in the community, whether they are violating the law or not.”

The same officer said the department’s soft approach is encapsulated in the term “stunt driving,” which no other department uses when describing what everyone calls sideshows. 

“’Stunt car driving’ is a term that seems to only be used in San Francisco,” agreed Ford. 

A second officer confirmed that Scott chose to call such incidents “stunt driving” in an effort to avoid stigmatizing the Latino community, where the term “sideshow” may have originated as a description of events that took place near lowrider gatherings, i.e., the main show.

“It was to be sensitive to someone’s opinion about the Hispanic community and sideshows,” the officer said.

The department did not respond to a request for comment on the origin of the stunt driving descriptor. 

Regardless of name, Supervisor Safaí believes the department should be more forceful in its approach around sideshows, calling the police record on stopping them a “mixed bag.”

“There hasn’t been the energy and effort put into this in an aggressive manner,” he said, adding that the department has failed to provide the Board of Supervisors with its promised annual report on sideshow activities.

Jonah Owen Lamb can be reached at