Ending pretext stops will make streets safer — here’s how


On January 11, San Francisco could make history alongside cities like Los Angeles, Portland, Washington DC, and Cincinnati by putting an end to what are known as “pretext traffic stops”. This Wednesday, the SF Police Commission will be discussing Department General Order (DGO) 9.0.7 and hearing from members of the public before taking a vote. 

For nearly two years, we have worked closely with core members of the Coalition to End Biased Stops to put an end to pretext stops in San Francisco. Pretext stops are traffic stops law enforcement use as a means to further investigate pedestrians, bicyclists, drivers, or passengers in a vehicle for something usually unrelated to the initial stop. These stops instill fear and cause incalculable psychological and physical harm, especially to Black and brown people, discouraging them from walking and biking. The deadly legacy of pretextual stops should not be taken lightly: Sandra Bland, Daunte Wright, Rayshard Wright, Philando Castile, Walter Scott, and Sam Dubose were all needlessly killed in police encounters initiated through pretext stops. 

Data collected by SPUR in their 2019 Traffic Stops analysis shows that, in SF, this practice is racially biased. The report found that Black drivers comprised 19% of those stopped, while making up less than 5% of the city’s population. In the third quarter of 2021, the SF Police Department (SFPD) reported making 6,690 traffic stops and conducting 1,332 searches. According to this report, SFPD used force 13 times more on Black people than white people, and Black people were stopped five times more and searched eight times more than white people. 

2022 was the deadliest year for traffic fatalities in the last ten years, with 37 preventable deaths. We know streets in our Black and brown neighborhoods are significantly over-represented in the High-Injury Network. This updated 2022 map shows streets have gotten worse in Black and brown communities. We also know the top violations that cause traffic fatalities and severe injuries: speeding, failing to yield to pedestrians, running red lights, running stop signs, and failing to yield while turning.  But in these communities, enforcement of these behaviors was virtually nonexistent last year. Ending pretext stops would refocus police on those behaviors that cause the greatest death and injury. At the same time, pretext stops have a terrible track record of effectively identifying other dangerous behaviors. For example, San Francisco data from 2019 show that of the 4,086 stops for expired registration fewer than 1% of stops resulted in recovery of a gun and only 0.7% of stops resulted in an arrest. The other stops covered by this DGO have similarly low yield rates.

In 2014, SFPD, alongside 13 other city agencies, committed to Vision Zero, the goal of zero traffic fatalities by 2024. In order to reach our goal by next year we need to talk about more effective enforcement. With such limited resources we want to see the police department use them strategically, making decisions informed by data to prioritize preventing behaviors that are life-endangering on our streets. 

The list of bicycle and pedestrian stops* we are hoping to see banned are:

  • Jaywalking
  • Riding a bike or scooter on the sidewalk
  • Not riding a bicycle close to the curb or edge of the roadway
  • Riding without a helmet, lights, or functioning brakes

*Though some of the listed actions are not illegal, such as riding without a helmet if you are over 18 or jaywalking, pretext stops are still routinely made for these actions.

Under DGO 9.0.7, police would still be allowed to stop someone if there is immediate danger such as crashing with a bicycle or pedestrian. What this policy does is limit officers’ unchecked discretion in using these stops as a pretext for unrelated searches and investigation.

We believe putting an end to pretext stops will make streets safer for our Black and brown community members and will allow SFPD to prioritize Focus on the Five stops. You can read our joint letter with Walk SF to the SF Police Commission here

The data is clear. Pretext stops are not making our streets safer for anyone and put Black and brown people at risk; they don’t reduce crime; and they’re a waste of community resources. That is why we urge the SF Police Commission to adopt a strong DGO that is comprehensive, backed by data and focused on public safety. This Wednesday, we need you to stand in solidarity with us and the 100+ endorsing groups that make up the Coalition to End Biased Stops by turning out to public comment in-person, over the phone, or through email supporting DGO 9.0.7. Sign up here for public comment updates day-of!

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