Posted on October 26, 2022

S.F. May Limit When Police Can Pull Over Drivers to Fight Racial Profiling

Megan Cassidy and Susie Neilson, San Francisco Chronicle, October 7, 2022

San Francisco is weighing whether to bar officers from stopping drivers for a variety of low-level violations, a move that would fundamentally shift policing — if it survives a bitter debate now playing out mostly behind the scenes in a city divided over public safety issues.

Under a proposed policy designed to reduce racial profiling, city police officers could no longer pull over motorists for infractions including throwing trash from a window, driving without registration tags, sleeping in a vehicle, failing to signal a turn or stopping in a no-parking zone.

Cyclists could not be stopped for riding on a sidewalk. And during vehicle, bicycle or pedestrian stops for more serious traffic violations, officers could in most cases not ask people probing questions nor ask them if they agree to a search.

The draft policy, proposed by members of the city’s Police Commission, is intended to curtail pretextual stops, a practice that has drawn controversy nationally in recent years in which officers use relatively minor infractions — often traffic violations — to probe for guns, drugs and other larger crimes.

The draft, first released in May, states that officials have been discussing “the pros and cons of including a list of offenses for which stops are banned.” The proposal would not completely get rid of the listed offenses; a driver who was caught doing something more serious like speeding, for example, could also be ticketed for littering once pulled over.

Underlying the proposal is data from San Francisco and other California cities showing continued racial disparities in police stops, particularly for lower-level violations, with Black people far more likely to be stopped than white people.

The policy’s champions believe that taking such stops off the table will help reverse the city’s imbalances, while critics, including many rank-and-file officers, fear the changes could hamstring cops and make San Francisco less safe.

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In all, commissioners have selected for discussion 18 common, minor offenses police sometimes use to make contact with an individual, including driving with a broken headlight or taillight or making certain unlawful U-turns.

The idea of listing offenses that could no longer be the basis of a San Francisco police stop is the central point of contention between commissioners and police officials, who argue there is value in enforcing even minor infractions.

But perhaps more far-reaching are potential changes to what officers can do if they properly stop an individual but have no evidence of a serious crime. They would no longer be able to ask probing questions, such as asking where a person is headed or what they’re doing in an area. And they would no longer be able to request a voluntary search.

City leaders, including Mayor London Breed and Police Chief Bill Scott, have publicly supported the broad contours of the plan — and its goal. But behind the scenes, a debate has unfolded over both the substance of the proposal and the process used to craft it.


A Chronicle analysis of San Francisco police stops over the last four years found that Black people were 4.4 times more likely to be stopped than white people for any traffic violation and 10.5 times more likely to be stopped for pretextual reasons.

Among the most common reasons for a pretextual stop was the improper display of a license plate, in which Black people were 16 times more likely to be pulled over than white people.


Carter-Oberstone said he wanted to craft a policy that removed the subjectivity of pretextual stops — making clear what police could and couldn’t do. But some city officers who have read the draft policy in recent months fear they are about to be stripped of important powers on the streets.

The Chronicle analyzed four years of data to determine how city police are using some of the most common violations that could be barred under the policy. Between mid-2018 and mid-2022, officers made at least 29,300 stops using codes for these offenses, out of a total of 142,500 total traffic stops.

“So long as the traffic stops are conducted to promote traffic safety, they should be allowed,” one traffic officer, Crispin Jones, wrote in a recommendation following a recent working group meeting on the matter.

In his own letter, San Francisco police Officer Haven Latimore recounted a stop he made earlier this year near his Union Square beat after he noticed a parked car with generic dealer plates. This is a red flag for officers, he said, because people committing crimes will often remove or switch out plates to avoid identification.

After approaching the driver and running his license, Latimore discovered the man had a felony warrant out for his arrest since early 2020, for allegedly raping a person who was incapacitated. “Under the proposed changes to (the policy) I would be prohibited from taking action on the traffic violation that led to this arrest,” Latimore wrote.


At the same time, some local activists are pushing for more infractions to be listed.

In a letter to the commission, activists with the Coalition to End Biased Stops proposed barring additional codes that “effectively criminalize poverty or contribute to persistent racial disparities in stops and searches.” Members of the coalition include the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, the homelessness nonprofit group Glide, the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office and the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition.

Letters from the public have reflected a split. “This unwarranted policy would lead to more traffic accidents, more shootings and more crime,” one resident wrote. Another said police “should not be wasting time on traffic stops that do not improve public safety and harm community trust and cohesion.”