A movement to end racial disparities in traffic stops by banning officers from pulling over people for minor vehicle offenses is shaping up to be the next battle for police reform in San Francisco.
Around the country, state and local lawmakers are considering placing limits on a police practice known as a “pretextual stop.” The practice occurs when an officer pulls over a person for a low-level offense—like having a broken tail light—because they want to investigate the driver for an unrelated matter.
Police say pretextual stops are an important crime-fighting tool that can help take guns or drugs off the streets. But community advocates say the practice leads to officers unfairly pulling over Black and Latino people at disproportionately high rates, sometimes leading to deadly encounters.
“These unnecessary interactions lead to use-of-force violations and they unnecessarily strain the relationship between communities and police in a way that isn’t providing any public safety benefit,” said Police Commissioner Max Carter-Oberstone, who wants to ban the practice in San Francisco.
In Philadelphia, legislators recently barred officers from making certain low-level traffic stops. Soon after, the Los Angeles Police Commission stopped officers from making pretextual stops without some information that the driver was involved in a serious crime.
Now San Francisco is having a go at curtailing pretextual stops. Next week, the Police Commission will hear a proposed policy that would bar officers from stopping drivers for a specific range of traffic violations, which could include driving with a broken tail light or failing to use a turn signal. The proposal would also prohibit police from going on “fishing expeditions,” or using traffic stops to question people about unrelated criminal activity.
The proposal includes some exceptions, including for drivers suspected of serious crimes. While barred from making certain stops, police would still be able to enforce violations—by issuing a citation in the mail, for instance.
Carter-Oberstone, one of the newest members of the commission, drafted the proposal in response to persistent disparities in San Francisco police stop data despite a years-long effort to root out bias and reform the department.
A review of police data by The Standard shows a Black person in San Francisco was four times as likely to be pulled over than a white person last year. These disparities get worse depending on how you slice the data. Carter-Oberstone found that, in 2019, Black people were 10 times as likely to be pulled over for a subset of traffic offenses, called equipment violations.
For Carter-Oberstone, the problem with low-level traffic stops is that officers have too much discretion over who to pull over, meaning implicit bias can impact their decisions and lead to starkly different outcomes depending on the driver’s race. Carter-Oberstone also said that pretextual stops are a costly and ineffective tool for taking guns and drugs off the streets at a time when the department is short hundreds of officers.
“We are spending a lot of officer time and money and resources on making tens of thousands of stops that are just not providing us any return on investment,” Carter-Oberstone said. “We could be rerouting all of those resources to strategies that are actually proven to stop and prevent crime.”
Carter-Oberstone crafted the proposal with input from the San Francisco Police Department and Department of Police Accountability.
Chief Bill Scott was unavailable to comment Friday on whether he supports the proposal. Asked during a recent interview with The Standard whether he supported banning pretextual traffic stops, Scott said nothing was off the table.
“Bottom line, we have to address this disparity problem we have,” he said. “We can’t keep doing the same things and expect things to change.”
The proposal could face pushback from the police union. Tracy McCray, acting president of the San Francisco Police Officers Association, called pretextual stops an “effective tool” for ensuring public safety that helps officers take guns, drugs and dangerous criminals off the streets.
“Telling every criminal that driving your car through San Francisco guarantees you safe passage for transporting ghost guns and other illegal firearms is reckless and dangerous to public safety,” said McCray.
McCray was speaking generally about pretextual stops and had not yet reviewed the proposal. She called for a deeper analysis of stop data to determine whether Black drivers are actually stopped at disparate rates when factors other than local demographic data are used in the calculation.
“The facts are, our officers target the behavior of drivers, not what they look like,” she said. “Any proposed policy changes should take that into account.”
Phelicia Jones, the founder of a local group called Wealth and Disparities in Black Community, has urged the Police Commission to address racial inequities in stop, search and use-of-force data for years.
“It’s a way for Black people to die, especially Black men to get killed,” Jones said. “It’s racial discrimination, it’s racial profiling and it’s harassment.”
A coalition of local advocacy groups ranging from the ACLU of Northern California to the transit organization Walk SF have joined forces to call on the Police Commission to end “racially biased” pretextual stops.
“I think we are lucky an incident like what happened to George Floyd or others hasn’t happened in San Francisco,” said Brian Cox, an attorney with the Public Defender’s Office and member of the coalition. “That’s why we need a robust, strong policy from the commission to curb these stops.”
The draft policy will be introduced to the Police Commission next Wednesday. Carter-Oberstone expects to gather public input and revise the proposal through various public meetings beginning next month. He hopes that the commission will vote on a final version of the policy by the fall.
Michael Barba can be reached at [email protected]