Huge Coalition in San Francisco Calls for the End of Racially-Biased Pretext Stops

Photo Courtesy SF Public Defender’s Office via Twitter

By David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

San Francisco, CA – A press conference held early Wednesday inside City Hall called for an end to racially-biased traffic stops, also known as “driving, bicycling, or walking while Black or brown” or “pretext stops” in advance of a San Francisco Police Commission vote later in the day.

According to a release after the press conference, The Coalition to End Biased Stops is “committed to ending racially-biased traffic stops by police in San Francisco, and has been building support for these changes over the past 16 months.”

Proponents of the change argue, “Police use these alleged traffic violations as a ‘pretext’ to detain and search people, wreaking untold economic, physical, psychological, and intergenerational harm, especially on Black and brown San Franciscans.”

The numbers are stark: multiple studies have shown that Black drivers are disproportionately stopped by police in San Francisco. Black drivers make up 19% of all traffic stops but just 5% of the population.

They cited a recently published SPUR analysis of 2019 traffic stop data that “found that Black drivers were stopped by the police the most for having their ‘license plates displayed incorrectly,’ but received tickets just 22% of the time they were stopped, indicating that stops weren’t actually related to driver behavior, but were instead pretext stops.”

Other jurisdictions have already taken initial or significant steps toward banning pretext stops, including Berkeley, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and the state of Virginia.

“As we know from the deaths of Sandra Bland, Philando Castile, Sam Dubose, Walter Scott, Daunte Wright and Rayshard Brooks, racially-biased traffic stops can be fatal for people of color. We can and should do better. The commission has the power to end these racially biased pretext stops. And now is the time,” said Mano Raju, San Francisco’s elected public defender.

Miguel Bustos, Senior Director of GLIDE’s Center for Social Justice, added, “Willie McCoy, Sandra Bland, Philando Castile, Sam Dubose, Walter Scott, Daunte Wright, and Rayshard Brooks should still be alive. They were all Black, and police killed them during ordinary traffic stops for violations that did not threaten public safety.”

Brian Cox from the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office has been working on this policy change for some time.

He told the Vanguard in a phone interview that their office sees a lot of cases that began either as a pretextual stop or a technical violation that escalated.

“We’re really focused on reducing the number of people that are in the system,” he said.  “I think SFPD historically has targeted the Black and brown community.  The stories we hear from our clients… they tend to focus on feeling targeted, there’s no space.  They can’t breathe in San Francisco without seeing a cop or being harassed by cops.”

A huge part of these stops is that it feeds into racial inequities.

Cox said, “The data still tell us that Black and brown people are being stopped and searched at disparate rates, and that hasn’t gone away. And that’s despite all the reform efforts, despite a new chief, despite new, new sort of policies and initiatives, the data still remains critically the same.

“This really is a, really, justice issue,” he added.

Zac Dillon, also with the public defender’s office in the Integrity Unit added, “None of these laws are enforced a hundred percent.  Not every single person who has an expired [tag] is pulled over.”  He added, “These laws are enforced discretionary.”

Dillon explained, “By removing some of that discretion from the officers, we’re hoping to target the racial disparities and outcomes because we know for a fact that these laws are enforced against Black and Brown people in San Francisco at a disparate rate.”

The proposal seeks to “ensure Black and brown community members are protected from pretext stops” by adopting a “comprehensive list of codes for which SFPD cannot stop drivers, bicyclists, and pedestrians.”

In the revised DGO, the nine reasons for stops that officers would not be able to use without further justification are:

  • Failure to display a front license plate;
  • Failure to display proper registration tags;
  • Failure to illuminate license plate;
  • Driving with malfunctioning tail lights (unless all lights are out);
  • Driving with malfunctioning brake lights (unless all brake lights are out);
  • Having an object affixed to window or hanging from rearview mirror (unless the item obstructs the driver’s view and substantially increases likelihood of injury or death);
  • Failure to signal while turning or changing lanes;
  • Sleeping in a car; and,
  • Pedestrian or bicycle infractions unless there is an immediate danger of crash.

There has long been a resistance in San Francisco to fixing these problems.

“Institutionally in SFPD, my sense is that they prefer to handle reforms internally, as in, there’s nothing to see here.  We’ll fix it, don’t worry about it.  We don’t like outside scrutiny,” Cox explained.  He added, “The goal of this policy is really about accountability…  monitor these stops to make sure the disparities are reduced.”

John Hamasaki, who recently ran for DA, spent a long time fighting for these reforms when he was on the police commission.

He called the proposal “pretty modest.”  He noted, “I think it’ll help reduce some of the racial disparities in policing.”  He said, “For far too long we’ve accepted this in San Francisco.  Policing has mainly been concentrated on traffic stops, Black motorists, and I don’t think that’s good for the community and I don’t think that’s good for policing.”

He added, “It’s built up this degree of lack of trust in policing by the community. It’s built this, this feeling that they’re not welcome in their own neighborhoods, um, by police.”

From Hamasaki’s perspective, the police reluctance to address this is, “Police believe they have limited proactive methods of addressing crime.”  And “traffic stops, it’s a long-held belief in policing that traffic stops are the way to boost the stats.”

He noted that there has been a lot of fear mongering that that this is going to “stop police from enforcing traffic laws.  That’s not true.  They’re still allowed to enforce traffic laws. They’re just limited in the way they can enforce them.”

The stats have very consistently shown that traffic stops are not a great way to seize guns and drugs.  Most of the time, they end up harassing innocent people—most of whom are Black and brown.

Yoel Haile, Director, Criminal Justice Program, ACLU of Northern California, said, “Pretext stops happen everywhere in the country, every day. For people of color, pretext stops are as ubiquitous as breathing. SFPD frequently use minor traffic violations—like hanging an air freshener or prayer bead, sleeping in your car, or a broken taillight—to stop and search people. Those pretext stops disproportionately target Black and brown people. Let us protect our community and end biased, pretext stops once and for all, tonight”

While this has been a problem everywhere in the country, the stats really stand out in San Francisco.

Brian Cox explained that “my sense is that, that the Black community in San Francisco has been shrinking for some times, and that’s due to gentrification and a lot of other factors that have pushed Black and brown people and continue to marginalize them.”

At the same time, he added, “you don’t have necessarily the same investment in those communities that you historically have, whether that’s from a federal level or from a local level.  The point is that economic marginalization has an impact.”

The result, “SFPD knows who they want to go after.  Even if they’re wrong, it doesn’t matter because maybe we’ll get somebody.”

Moreover, while people have been pushing back on that policy, Cox said, “I don’t know that the folks who are in charge of the policy have decided to listen to those people until somewhat more recently.”

District 10 Supervisor Shamann Walton, said, “I can remember being stopped as a teenager and pulled over because I had a clear plastic covering on my license plate. It was not obstructive in any way. It was a clear covering. But this was an excuse at the time of the stop.

“Pretext stops involve stopping people because they look a certain way, because an officer feels a certain way. This is something that we have to stop immediately. They’re terrifying, extremely traumatizing and it’s unfortunate that this has been the status quo for Black and brown people. It’s not normal and it is unacceptable.”

Last night the SFPD Commission adopted “the most comprehensive policy in the country to curb the harmful practice of racially-biased police stops.”

Mano Raju called it, “An historic step toward protecting Black & Brown communities from unnecessary & often devastating interactions w/police.”

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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