Police have pledged to target dangerous driving behaviors. So why is enforcement down?

City struggles to reduce traffic fatalities and injuries

San Francisco officials say an all-hands-on deck approach is needed to eliminate deaths and severe injuries on the roads within the next four years, a commitment The City made when it signed on to the Vision Zero pledge.

That means a three-pronged approach focusing on the “Three Es:” road user education, street engineering and enforcement.

But, this year, there’s been a conspicuous and dramatic drop in enforcement as measured by the number of traffic stops and searches.

Through June 2020, officers had made 24,549 stops for traffic violations this year, defined in the San Francisco Police Department quarterly report as either traffic stops or pedestrian detentions that can be self-initiated or dispatched.

That’s compared to 53,877 such stops made last year during the same period, nearly a 54 percent decline.

The rate of traffic fatalities and injuries, on the other hand, remains largely unchanged compared to the five-year average by this point in the calendar, despite a noted brief decline in the early days of shelter-in-place in March and April.

So, the question is, what role does enforcement play in street safety?

Focus on Five

Enforcement, penalizing the people who break the rules and endanger their peers, can be particularly complex and hard to get right.

Disregard for traffic codes has proven to be the primary cause of serious injury or death to road users, and enforcement has long been considered the fast track to addressing it.

But increased police enforcement also carries the risk of bias and increases the chances a disproportionate burden will be placed on drivers of color and low-income community members. Recent data specific to San Francisco shows people of color remain disproportionately subject to these enforcement measures.

As part of its role in reaching Vision Zero goals, SFPD has committed to issuing at least 50 percent of its annual traffic citations to drivers exhibiting the five most dangerous behaviors behind the wheel — speeding, violating pedestrian right-of-way, running red lights, running stop signs and failure to yield — with a specific focus on The City’s most dangerous streets, formally known as the High Injury Network.

The concept behind the Focus on Five initiative is for enforcement to follow data rather than bias while still curbing dangerous behaviors.

Cmdr. Daniel Perea, who works on the Safe Streets for All project, told the Police Commission in early September that the initiative is also done “in the hopes of changing behaviors and raising public awareness, in the belief that if we can reduce instances where these violations occur, we can have an impact on the number of serious injury and fatal collisions.”

SFPD spokesperson Officer Robert Rueca said Focus on Five citations currently account for 53 percent of all traffic tickets issued across the year, which suggests they’re on track to meet their goals.

However, the most recent data available from SFPD muddies the waters.

In August and September of 2019, Focus on Five monthly totals accounted for 51.4% and 56.2 percent, respectively. This year, that percentage fell to 47.6 percent and 42.7 percent over the same respective months.

What’s even more startling is the decline in the raw number of these citations. Last August and September, SFPD issued 1,984 and 2,213 Focus on Five citations, respectively. This year, those numbers plunged to just 305 and 395 citations.

Rueca said the decline has been caused by “various factors,” including a decrease in the overall sworn police staffing levels, a reduction in the number of officers available for traffic enforcement because they’re responding to other calls for service and a decrease in the amount of “pedestrians, cyclists and motorists” on the roads during shelter-in-place which has “decreased the pool of people who commit violations.”

A separate internal email obtained by the Examiner includes more robust conversation about the drop and notes additional theories, including a potential tendency by officers to avoid or step back from traffic stops in order to reduce sources of possible conflict in the era of racial reckoning happening nationwide.

Racial disparities

These concerns of racial bias are valid, as SFPD data shows San Francisco drivers of color continue to face a much higher risk of being pulled over, searched or issued a citation.

SFPD underwent an evaluation from the Center for Policing Equity that looked at its stop statistics from 2016 through 2018. It found Black drivers were 2.5 times more likely than their white or Latino counterparts to get pulled over on a per capita basis, and four times more likely than their Asian peers.

Police Chief Bill Scott told the Board of Supervisors at its Oct. 20 meeting that although racial disparity in stops had “declined, some,” the gap hadn’t closed “as much as we would like or as much as we’d hope to achieve in the future.”

Looking at this year, the decline in overall stops and citations issued hasn’t translated to more equity.

From April through June, 35 percent of total stops were conducted on those perceived by the officers to be Black. By comparison, 34 percent of those stopped were perceived white and 19 percent Latino.

At face value, these numbers could appear relatively benign.

But the most recent U.S. Census Bureau data shows roughly 5 percent of San Francisco residents identify as Black and about 15 percent identify as Latino, which means both are disproportionately represented in the number of stops.

“The Department is looking to partner with the academic community to assist us in analyzing this data,” Rueca said. “We provide all our officers with bias training and require our academy recruits to engage with our culturally diverse communities throughout The City.”

Role of enforcement in question

Most Vision Zero stakeholders agree law enforcement does need to play some kind of role in making traffic safety a reality for The City. But to what extent policing should be prioritized remains up for debate.

Vision Zero Year-End Reports from 2016 to 2019 show the most-cited collision factors each year were failure to yield right-of-way at crosswalks, unsafe speed and failure to stop at a red signal, all of which can theoretically be checked by enforcement measures.

“In essence, we cannot allow unsafe behaviors on our roadways go unaddressed,” Rueca said. “If we do not enforce the traffic laws, public safety would be jeopardized and the goal of the reduction and elimination of injuries and fatalities on our streets may be compromised.”

However, an increase in the number of tickets can’t necessarily be directly tied to improved safety outcomes, as the number of traffic fatalities has remained frustratingly consistent at between 20 and 30 annually, even in years where more citations have been issued.

SFMTA and advocacy groups such as Walk SF note the importance of enforcement in the most deadly driving situations, but they prefer to focus Vision Zero efforts on the other two E’s: education and engineering.

“Vision Zero SF focuses on leading with design rather than relying on enforcement, recognizing that self-enforcing street design is the best way to achieve safe outcomes,” SFMTA spokesperson Kristen Holland said.

Where enforcement is necessary, advocates and city officials would prefer to let targeted technology such as automated speed enforcement and red light cameras do much of the work and mitigate some concerns about bias, so long as they’re deployed equitably throughout The City.

Some of those solutions require permission from the state legislature, however, and the SFMTA is pursuing legislative authority to set its own speed limits and install speed cameras.


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