Many of us know the names: Sandra Bland, Daunte Wright, Philando Castile, Walter Scott, Sam DuBose. They are just a few of the hundreds of Americans across the country who have been killed by police during a traffic stop. In many of these cases, police had stopped the victim using a practice called “pretext stops” — pulling someone over for a minor traffic or equipment violation and then using that stop to conduct an unrelated speculative criminal investigation, not for the purpose of enforcing the traffic code.
According to 2022 national police violence data, police in the U.S. have killed nearly 600 people in traffic stops since 2017. Despite Black people accounting for 13% of the population, Black drivers accounted for 28% of those killed in traffic stops.
While it may be tempting to read these stories from other parts of the country and think San Francisco is the exception, the truth is, we’re not. When it comes to pretext stops, our city’s police do not enforce traffic laws equally either.
According to a recently published SPUR analysis of 2019 traffic stop data, Black drivers in San Francisco were disproportionately stopped by police. The data showed that despite accounting for just 5% of the city’s population, Black drivers were stopped 19% of the time. Moreover, the analysis found that 30% of all Black drivers subjected to a traffic stop in the city were stopped for equipment reasons — like not displaying their license plate correctly, for example — compared to white drivers who were far more likely to be stopped for a moving violation. Add to this the fact that, unlike any other racial group, Black drivers are less likely to end up receiving a citation after the stop and it begs the question: Are Black people really being stopped to protect other people on the road?
None of the findings in the SPUR analysis are new. For too many people of color, the generational trauma of these statistics has made the possibility of being killed during a traffic stop expected and normalized. People of color receive “pretext stop” training from a young age. They’re told that it’s more important to get home alive than protest the stop.
No one should have to grow up this way.
Despite their facade, pretext stops do not make our streets any safer for people who bike, walk or drive. Since 2014, San Francisco has made a commitment to Focus on the Five — a campaign to focus the San Francisco Police Department on enforcing the five violations that are most frequently cited in vehicle collisions with people walking: speeding, failing to yield to pedestrians, running red lights, running stop signs and failing to yield while turning. According to the department’s November 2022 traffic violations report, the most recently available, Focus on the Five violations account for 61.5% of traffic violations issued by the department.
On Wednesday, the San Francisco Police Commission will vote on a new draft policy that would ban the police from making nine specific types of stops in an attempt to minimize the racial disparities in traffic stops. None of the nine types fall under the Focus on the Five violations.
If the policy is adopted, it will be the most comprehensive in the country to address the harms caused by pretext stops to communities of color. It will also free police officers to attend to real traffic safety issues and allow the department to use more of its resources to prioritize the Focus on the Five campaign. The proposed ban has already been endorsed by over 100 local organizations dedicated to ending the department’s practice of detaining motorists, cyclists and pedestrians for low-level, nonthreatening traffic stops.
By adopting the proposed policy, the Police Commission can send a message to Black San Franciscans that it is committed to improving the treatment of Black people in our city and is committed to ensuring their safety, too.
As all of us settle into the start of a new year, those of us in the Black church are reminded of the New Year’s Eve tradition of Watch Night — where many Black people wait for the stroke of midnight at the end of the year to commemorate the moment when the Emancipation Proclamation came into effect.
Every San Franciscan should have the right to free movement — to feel safe to move about the city without fear of being targeted and stopped by police and potentially killed. Ending pretext stops is a long overdue step in solidifying that basic right.
Marvin K. White is the minister of celebration at Glide Memorial Church. Claire Amable is the movement building manager at the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition.
This editorial was originally published in the San Francisco Chronicle.