Posted on May 15, 2022

To Reduce Racial Disparities, SFPD May Ban Minor Traffic Stops

Michael Barba, San Francisco Standard, May 6, 2022

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.”