San Francisco Police Commission members have voted to enact a new policy aimed at curbing the San Francisco Police Department’s use of racially-biased pretext in stops, according to a press release last week from the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office.  

The new policy, Department General Order 9.07, was subject to a public input process lasting over a year and almost an entire year of bargaining with the Police Officer’s Association.  

“The Police Commission’s vote to restrict pretext stops is an important step towards reducing racist policing tactics where police officers disproportionately stop and search Black and Brown people under the guise of traffic enforcement,” Director of the Criminal Justice Program at the ACLU of Northern California Yoel Haile said. “Now we will work to make sure SFPD implements the policy to prevent unnecessary encounters between police officers and San Francisco residents that all too often escalate and end in tragedy.”

The new policy bars officers from using a list of nine minor traffic violations as pretext to investigate other crimes, but still allows officers to write tickets for those violations when stopping vehicles for other reasons or while investigating other crimes.

The nine de-prioritized violations include:

  • having only one license plate displayed, having an expired vehicle registration out-of-date by a year or less
  • failing to illuminate a vehicle’s rear license plate
  • driving without functioning or illuminated rear taillights, driving without functioning or illuminated rear brake lights
  • having objects on a vehicle’s windows or hanging from the rearview mirror
  • failing to activate a turn signal more than 100 feet before turning
  • sleeping in a parked vehicle
  • any pedestrian infraction of the California Vehicle Code

There are some exceptions to this list. For example, police can still stop vehicles driving without functioning or illuminated rear taillights if it is at night and vehicles driving without functioning or illuminated rear brake lights if none of the lights are illuminated. Additionally, police can still stop vehicles for unsafe turns or lane changes and can stop pedestrians in the case of preventing an imminent crash.   

Hanging things like air fresheners and prayer beads on rearview mirrors are explicitly allowed under the ordinance, but objects obstructing the driver’s vision in a way that substantially increases the likelihood of a crash are not allowed and may still lead to police stopping a vehicle.

None of the deprioritizations apply to commercial vehicles, and any vehicle can still be pulled over in the investigation of a traffic crash.

Other exceptions to the order include allowing police to stop a person or motor vehicle matching the description of a suspect, or suspect vehicle, involved in a felony where the risk of death or life-threatening injuries is imminent if the suspect is not immediately apprehended. Applicable felonies include — but are not limited to — murder, attempted murder, manslaughter, armed robbery, kidnapping, forcible sex offense and any felony committed against a child.

‘Fight for racial justice continues’

SFPD’s own data showed SFPD officers stopped Black people at six times the rate of white people, searched them at more than 10 times the rate of white individuals and used force on them at more than 21 times the rate of white individuals, according to the press release.

The order also limited SFPD officers to only asking investigatory questions at vehicle stops regarding criminal activity where the belief that criminal activity is occurring, has occurred, or is about to occur is supported by reasonable suspicion or probable cause.

“While voting to enact this policy limiting racially-biased stops is an important step, we recognize that more work needs to be done to heal the harms inflicted on communities of color due to decades of over-policing and underinvestment,” San Francisco Public Defender Mano Raju said in a Friday press release. “My office looks forward to participating in the rollout of this pretext policy by informing the public of their rights. The fight for racial justice continues.”

The commission directed the police department to implement the new policy within 90 days.