Today, the Board of Supervisors held a hearing to look into the San Francisco Police Department’s (SFPD) response to handling incidents involving people biking and walking. The hearing lasted three hours, during which nearly 40 people shared their personal stories of mistreatment by the police. Supervisor Eric Mar called it “one of the most effective hearings to date.”
Today’s hearing brought to light what appears to be a “blame the victim” mentality among many of SFPD’s officers, and a worrisome indication that the police department is not enforcing the law fairly and equitably.
“It’s strikingly clear that the San Francisco Police Department has a dangerous habit of failing to properly investigate and process crashes on our street that involve people walking and biking, even when someone has been killed,” said Leah Shahum, San Francisco Bicycle Coalition’s Executive Director. “Everyone in our city deserves to be treated equally under the law.”
District Supervisors, bicycle and pedestrian advocates and more than 30 victims of police injustice, ranging from seniors to parents with children, sent a strong message to the City that it is imperative that the SFPD begins treating crashes involving people biking and walking fairly and equitably.
Upsetting Stories of Unfair Treatment
Among those who bravely told their stories were friends of Amelie Le Moullac, talking about the SFPD’s failed and biased investigation of her death; 6th Street and Tenderloin residents who shared stories of watching fellow residents in wheelchairs hit by speeding cars; dozens of people who had been hit while biking and were blamed for the injuries they sustained; SF Bicycle Coalition’s Leah Shahum shared the stories of those who couldn’t be there, including a member who was hit while biking with her toddler, then blamed by the police, despite witness testimony that told another story. She was still at home recovering from the crash that left her severely injured.
While the upsetting stories varied in terms of scenarios, there was one alarming similarity: each of these victims had experienced bias from the SFPD, who either refused to investigate the incident, found inappropriate fault with the victims or expressed a strong bias against them simply because they were traveling by foot or bike.
It was Sarah Harling’s story that perhaps exemplified this systematic failure of the SFPD to fully and fairly investigate crashes involving vulnerable road users. In 2011, Sarah was hit while biking in San Francisco—it was daytime, she was riding in a group, she had stopped at a four-way intersection. Despite multiple witnesses and photo evidence that showed the driver at fault, the police placed blame on Sarah. The police report even included a fabricated statement from Sarah that said “she had not stopped at the stop sign.” When she tried to set the record straight, the Richmond Police Station desk officer again blamed her and urged her not to submit her statement.
After a legal battle, Sarah eventually was able to settle with the driver’s insurance company, a process which would have been made easier had the police report been fair and acurate. Her injuries and time away from work resulted in her giving up biking and significant loss of time and income from her career in urban planning. When Supervisor David Campos asked her if she knew that she could file a report with the Office of Citizens Complaints, she said she could not trust any system involving the SFPD. “The way I was treated by the police compounded the trauma of my crash,” she said.
Support from the Supervisors
In addition to the emotional personal stories that brought tears to the eyes of many people in the room, today’s hearing also included probing questions from District Supervisors, who called into question the SFPD’s response to crashes involving people biking and walking. Supervisors Kim, Mar, Wiener, Campos and Yee were present at the hearing.
Supervisor Kim, who called the hearing, oversees District 6, which has the most number of bike and pedestrian injuries and fatalities in the city. She expressed disappointment with the police for their failed investigation into Amelie Le Moullac’s death at Folsom & 6th Streets and called on the police to step up their training of police officers. Currently, only new officers receive training in responding to bike and pedestrian crashes. Kim worried that this contributed to police bias against people on bike and that officers needed regular training. “I admit I used to have a bias against cyclists when I first moved to San Francisco. Over time that has changed, and today I rode my bike to work,” she said.
Supervisor Norman Yee, who was hit and injured while walking, said that our City streets are changing and it’s time for the police to catch up with that change.
Supervisor David Campos was not satisfied with just one hearing on this issue. He has called for a joint hearing with the Police Commission to have a more in-depth discussion and plan for revamping the police response to bike and ped crashes.
Supervisor Scott Wiener reminded the police department that while there have been high-profile cases involving people on bike, the majority of injury and fatalities to pedestrians is caused by drivers, and the police need to enforce the most dangerous behavior by drivers.
Today’s hearing shone a spotlight on the SFPD’s systematic and pervasive mishandling of cases involving people biking and walking. While there seems to be strong public and political support for more fair and equal treatment of these cases, as of yet there is no commitment from the SFPD around changing their behavior and protocol.
The San Francisco Bicycle Coalition is having a follow-up meeting with the SFPD and Chief Suhr today. We will be asking for the following:
- More and ongoing, systematic training of police officers on how to fully and fairly respond to bike and pedestrian incidents, and to raise awareness of everyone’s rights on the road.
- Greater transparency and regular reporting on the SFPD’s handling of enforcement priorities.
- A commitment to the department’s “Focusing on the Five” program, announced earlier this year, which theoretically targets the most dangerous locations and behaviors in every district; and generally to use data-driven enforcement policies.
Thank you to everyone who came out to share your story today. We know that reliving these upsetting and dangerous incidents is very difficult, and we thank you for sharing your story so publicly. Your SF Bicycle Coalition will continue to push for fair and equal treatment for people who bike and walk. If you have had a questionable incident with the SFPD while biking please share it at sfbike.org/enforcement.