San Francisco police commissioner pleads for reform, reducing police power in traffic stops


By Mansour Taleb-Ahmed

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. — San Francisco Police Commissioner Max Carter-Oberstone introduced a new law here that would ban most traffic stops, to benefit criminal and racial justice and public safety, according to local news and national last week.

The commissioner explained: ‘We will never know how Philando Castile (who was killed by police during a traffic stop) felt when the police lights first flashed in his rear-view mirror on a balmy night. summer of 2016. But we can be reasonably certain of what he wasn’t feeling: surprise.

He added: “The traffic stop – apparently for a broken rear light – which hastened his tragic death and brought the nation’s attention to the nation’s attention was nothing out of the ordinary for Castile”, noting that Castile had been arrested 46 times.

According to Oberstone, in the United States, traffic laws are designed to work this way. He explained that “the offenses that populate our traffic laws are so vast that the average driver can hardly hope to spend a few minutes behind the wheel without committing an offence”.

Oberstone says even something as innocent as “hanging an air freshener in the rear view mirror or not illuminating your license plate” could cause people to pull over and get a ticket.

He acknowledged that “it is only a matter of time before a driver falls prey to the minefield of traffic violations that awaits him every time he turns on the engine”.

He said the system gives police “almost unlimited discretion to arrest any driver, at any time”.

The commissioner said one of the ways they often use their discretion is to initiate “pretext traffic stops…when police suspect a driver has committed a crime (or perhaps the driver just looks “suspicious”), but not enough evidence to stop and question them about it.”

He explained that the police were stopping the driver for “a minor traffic violation…in his opinion, whenever the police pull over a motorist, they have that leeway to start asking people about ‘the non-traffic crime they are interested in”.

He insisted that the traffic checks are only a “pretext for their real motivation. ”

Oberstone said he directly linked these issues and practices to the case of Philando Castile. As noted in court records, an audio recording of the dispatch revealed that the officer believed Castile’s “wide nose” “fit” the description of someone who had committed a robbery.

However, other tapes showed that the officer was completely wrong. Documents further revealed that the officer who shot Castille was “acquitted of the charges against him relating to the shooting”.

As a result, Oberstone argues that pretext stops do not make the country any safer, noting that numerous reliable studies have shown that “pretext stops reveal evidence of non-traffic violations at extremely low rates and that they have no effect on crime rates. ”

These studies also demonstrated that “when we invite agents to be guided by instinct and other uncontrolled heuristics, people of color are disproportionately affected.” And those same studies have proven that “racial disparities in arrestees erode trust in the police and reinforce the perception that police use race as an indicator of crime.”

The data showed around “20 million traffic stops every year, many of them for minor violations”.

From Oberstone’s perspective, remembering Castile and Daunte Wright, these shutdowns could quickly “turn deadly… The consequences don’t have to be deadly to have lasting effects.”

Regarding citations for minor traffic violations, Oberstone noted that they quickly result in “heavy fines, and for those who cannot pay, late fees and even license suspensions.” He also mentioned that these arrests have unleashed “fear, humiliation and other indignities” on innocent people.

Decision makers would have started to take notice of the problems. Philadelphia recently became the first city to implement a comprehensive policy to reduce pretext traffic stops.

Oberstone commented, “Policymakers owe it to their constituents to divert taxpayers’ money from the failed regime of pretense shutdowns and invest that money in programs that will keep officers and communities safe.”

Oberstone announced that he had introduced a law similar to that passed in Philadelphia.

According to him, his idea for a law would prohibit “arrests for minor traffic violations”. However, he revealed officers would still be able to do traffic checks for things that could pose a ‘threat to public safety’.

He also stressed that officers would still be able to enforce “low-level violations.” He pointed out that the officer will only have to “write down the driver’s license plate number and mail them a ticket.”

Second, Oberstone claimed that the law he introduced would limit “consent searches”, which he said would help prohibit officers from “seeking consent to search cars once they arrested the driver”.

This, he added, “will reduce the incentive to make pretextual stops in the first place, as well as the temptation to reach for a needle in a haystack”.

According to Oberstone, the law would also improve data collection.

He felt that “by letting the numbers tell the story, policy makers and the public can draw evidence-based conclusions about police enforcement of traffic laws and shine a light on any racial disparities”.

Oberstone said he hopes “the Police Commission will be able to vote on a final version of the bylaw this fall after public input is solicited and incorporated.”

As Oberstone asserted, “The substantial amount of money and time spent by officers making these ineffective stops could all be redirected to proven strategies for stopping and preventing more serious crimes – including greater responsiveness to emergency calls”.

Oberstone pointed out that while commentators often “reflexively” assume there is an inherent trade-off between police reform and public safety, he said that was “usually not the case.” He said reducing the use of pretext stops was the “best example”.

Oberstone explained whether people are primarily concerned about officer safety, better police response times, or even racial disparities, the new law will help the criminal justice system.
He pointed out that “everyone wins when pretext stops are phased out. Is there rarely a confluence of diverse stakeholders who stand to gain from a single policy proposal? »

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