On January 11, the San Francisco Police Commission banned local police from pulling drivers over for breaking one of 18 low-level traffic rules, which police have historically used to justify searching drivers and vehicles they find suspicious.
“Reducing the number of stops made for low-level offenses,”the commission explained in their resolution, will allow the department “to redirect resources and time to more effective public safety strategies, including prioritizing traffic safety to reduce injuries and fatalities, while also helping to fulfill its obligation to accord every person equal treatment under the law.”
The 18 traffic offenses include driving with registration tags that have been expired for less than a year, driving a car with license plate lights out, driving with a broken tail light, driving with air fresheners or prayer beads hanging from the rearview mirror, sleeping in a vehicle, failing to signal a turn continuously for 100 feet, or for crossing a street outside of a crosswalk.
The rules have carve-outs that allow police to conduct a stop when drivers are creating unsafe conditions. For example, police are allowed to pull a driver over for making an unsafe turn or lane change, or for having both brake lights out. Police can also stop a pedestrian crossing the street in a way that puts themself or motorists in imminent danger.
The order also requires more stringent data collection and reporting.
The data we do have is disturbing.
Deadly disparities in traffic stops
In California (and across the nation), police stop Black people at disproportionate rates. Expensive fines from tickets are not the only negative outcome of a traffic stop. During traffic and pedestrian stops, law enforcement officers are also more likely to then search, arrest, and kill Black people than the white people they stop.
And law enforcement officers spend more of their time conducting traffic stops than they do responding to calls for help.
An October 2022 report from Catalyst California (formerly Advancement Project California) and the ACLU of Southern California noted that sheriff’s deputies in Los Angeles and Riverside “spend nearly 9 out of every 10 hours on stops initiated by officers rather than responding to calls for help from community members.” And among those officer-initiated stops, “approximately 80% are for traffic violations.”
Under the Racial and Identity Profiling Act (RIPA) of 2015, the state has required police agencies to collect and report stop data, the results of which the Office of the Attorney General compiles and releases in annual reports.
According to the state’s most recent RIPA report released on January 1, 2023, police requested consent to search bodies and/or vehicles nearly twice as many times when stopping Black people (16,414) as when stopping white people (8,863), while stopping a total of 2.2 times as many white people (845,418) as Black people (385,773).
Furthermore, police were far less likely to discover anything illegal during consent-only traffic stops of Black people (6.8%) than when stopping white people (19.1% discovery rate) or any other perceived race.
The SF Police Commission’s order addresses this issue by banning police from asking investigatory questions or asking for consent to conduct searches during a stop for an infraction, unless “reasonable suspicion or probable cause for a criminal offense arises during the traffic stop.”
Statewide, officers were also 2.2 times as likely to use force against people they perceived to be Black as those perceived as white during car and pedestrian stops in 2021.
At the national level, most police killings occurred during a traffic stop or when police respond to a non-violent offense, according to the RIPA report. While, in California, Black people are around three times more likely to be injured, shot, or killed relative to their population than white people during interactions with police.
Three days, three killings
During the first three days of 2023, members of the Los Angeles Police Department killed three people of color — Takar Smith, Keenan Anderson, and Oscar Sanchez — all of whom appeared to be experiencing mental health crises, and were met with a standard police response rather than mental health teams.
Police were flagged down after Anderson reportedly caused a car accident in Venice. Officers killed Smith and Sanchez when responding to calls for service.
On January 11, the LAPD released edited and narrated video recordings of each of the encounters.
“The body camera footage released yesterday is appalling and deeply disturbing,” LA City Councilmember Eunisses Hernandez tweeted the next day. “I am devastated for the families and loved ones of Takar Smith, Keenan Anderson and Oscar Sanchez, and I am outraged for our city.”
Bernice King’s words were, if anything, stronger.
“Somewhere, somebody is excusing this with whataboutism and a horribly unjust belief that law enforcement = absolute power and the right to brutality with impunity. But what LAPD officers did to #KeenanAnderson is inexcusable,” King wrote on January 13, three days before the national holiday honoring her father, Martin Luther King Jr.
“No child should be left fatherless because his father was held down and tased to death after allegedly acting erratically and running from police.”
Anderson was a father of one, and Smith a father of six.
While different traffic policies would not have helped Smith, Anderson, or Sanchez, who needed better crisis response, it does appear that limiting or banning pretextual stops is an impactful step toward reducing dangerous encounters with police.
In March 2022, Los Angeles Police leaders approved a policy requiring officers to have reasonable suspicion that a crime more serious than a minor traffic violation is occurring before stopping someone under pretext. Police are also required to turn on their cameras and record their reason for initiating the stop.
In November of 2021, data analysis by the LA Times found that the policy significantly reduced stops for low-level infractions, and reduced the number of searches conducted during those stops.
Over the last decade, as police budgets have continued to expand, a community-led push for civilian alternatives to police response — especially when people are experiencing mental health emergencies — and to traffic enforcement has steadily grown. Progress, however, has been slow.
In June 2020, Los Angeles City Councilmembers proposed a motion that — had it not fizzled out — would have directed relevant city departments to work with community stakeholders to report on alternatives to having armed law enforcement officers responsible for traffic enforcement.
In July 2021, the Berkeley City Council adopted a motion “to pursue the creation of a Berkeley Department of Transportation (BerkDOT) to ensure a racial justice lens in traffic enforcement and the development of transportation policy, programs, & infrastructure.” However, state law would have to change to allow Berkeley, Los Angeles, or any other municipality to establish civilian traffic enforcement.
“Philando Castile was pulled over for a broken brake light,” Berkeley Councilmember Rigel Robinson wrote in the motion. “Sandra Bland was pulled over for failing to signal a lane change. Maurice Gordon was pulled over for speeding. All three died at the hands of police.”