San Francisco Police Commissioner Advocates for Reform, Reducing Police Power in Traffic Stops 


By Mansour Taleb-Ahmed

SAN FRANCISCO, CA – San Francisco Police Commissioner Max Carter-Oberstone has introduced a new law here that would outlaw most traffic stops, benefiting criminal and racial justice and public safety, according to local and national news reporting this past week.

The commissioner explained, “We’ll never know what Philando Castile (who was killed by police at a traffic stop) felt when the police lights first flashed across his rearview mirror on a balmy night in the summer of 2016. But we can be reasonably certain of what he wasn’t feeling: surprise.”

He added, “The traffic stop—ostensibly for a broken tail light—that precipitated his tragic death and captured the nation’s attention was nothing out of the ordinary for Castile,” noting Castile had been pulled over 46 times.

According to Oberstone, U.S. traffic laws are designed to function this way.  He explained, “The offenses that populate our traffic codes are so sprawling that the average driver can scarcely hope to spend a few minutes behind the wheel without committing an infraction.”

Oberstone claims that even something as innocent as “hanging an air freshener from the rear-view mirror or failing to illuminate your license plate” could get people pulled over and given a ticket.

He acknowledged, “It’s only a matter of time before any driver falls prey to the minefield of traffic infractions that awaits them every time they fire up the engine.”

He stated that the system gives police “nearly unbounded discretion to pull over any driver, any time they choose .”

The commissioner said one of the ways they often use their discretion is to trigger “pretextual traffic stops…when police have a hunch that a driver has committed a crime (or perhaps the driver just looks ‘suspicious’), but not enough evidence to stop and interrogate them about it.”

He explained police were pulling the driver over for “a petty traffic offense”… in his opinion, whenever the police stop a motorist, they possess this leeway allowing them to begin questioning people about “the non-traffic crime they’re interested in.”

He insisted that traffic stops are just “a pretext for their true motivation. ”

Oberstone said he directly linked those issues and practices with the case of Philando Castile. As stated in court records, a dispatch audio recording revealed that the officer believed that Castile’s “wide-set nose” was “fitting” the description of someone who had committed a robbery.

However, other records showed the officer was utterly mistaken. Documents further revealed that the officer who shot Castile was “acquitted of the charges he faced related to the shooting.”

As a result, Oberstone argues that pretextual stops don’t make the country safer, noting many reliable studies have shown that “pretext stops turn up evidence of non-traffic crimes at abysmally low rates, and that they have no effect on crime rates.”

Those studies also demonstrated, “When we invite officers to be led by their gut instincts and other unchecked heuristics, people of color are disproportionately affected.” And, those same studies proved, “Racial disparities in who gets pulled over erode trust in the police, and deepen the perception that police use race as a proxy for criminality.”

Data showed roughly “20 million traffic stops every year, many for petty infractions.”

In Oberstone’s perspective, remembering Castile and Daunte Wright, these stops could rapidly “turn lethal…The consequences need not be deadly to have lasting effects.”

When it comes to citations for minor traffic offenses, Oberstone remarked that they quickly lead to “hefty fines, and for those unable to pay, late fees and even license suspensions.” He also mentioned that those stops triggered “fright, humiliation, and other indignities” upon innocent people.

Policymakers reportedly have started to take notice of the issues. Philadelphia recently became the first city to implement a comprehensive policy to curtail pretextual traffic stops.

Oberstone commented, “Policymakers owe it to their constituents to divert taxpayer dollars away from the failed regime of pretext stops and invest that money in programs that will keep officers and communities safe.”

Oberstone announced that he introduced a law similar to the one passed in Philadelphia.

According to him, his law idea would prohibit “stops for low-level traffic offenses.” However, he disclosed that officers would still be able to make traffic stops for things that may engender a “threat to public safety.”

He also stressed that officers would still be able to enforce “low-level violations.” He emphasized that the officer will only need to “take down the driver’s license plate number and send them a ticket in the mail.”

Secondly, Oberstone claimed the law he introduced would limit “consent searches,” which, he said, would help prohibit officers from “asking for consent to search cars once they’ve pulled the driver over.”

That, he added, will “reduce the incentive to make pretextual stops in the first place, as well as the temptation to go searching for a needle in a haystack.”

According to Oberstone, the law would also allow improvement of data collection.

He reasoned, “By letting the numbers tell the story, policymakers and the public can draw evidenced-based conclusions about police traffic enforcement and illuminate any racial disparities.”

Oberstone said he hoped that “the Police Commission will be able to vote on a final version of the regulation this Fall after the solicitation and incorporation of the public’s input.”

As claimed by Oberstone, “The substantial amount of money and officer time spent carrying out these ineffectual stops could all be redirected to strategies proven to stop and prevent more serious crime—including greater responsiveness to emergency calls.”

Oberstone pointed out that, while commentators often “reflexively”  assume the existence of an inherent compromise between police reform and public safety, he said this is  “generally not the case.” He uttered that reducing the use of pretext stops is its “prime example.”

Oberstone explained whether people are primarily concerned with officer safety, better police response times, or even racial disparities, the new law will aid the criminal justice system.

He underscored, “Everyone comes out a winner when pretext stops are phased out. Seldom is there a confluence of diverse stakeholders that stand to gain from a single policy proposal.”

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