A Troubling Story of SFPD Bias Against Bicycle Riders

crash_scene.jpgAn injured bicyclist is loaded onto a gurney by paramedics on 14th Street and Market Thursday evening after being hit by a driver. Photos by Bryan Goebel.

Thursday was a momentous day for the growing and diverse population of people who ride bicycles in San Francisco, though as I’m about to relate to you, the city still has a steep hill to climb, particularly in the San Francisco Police Department.

All day, my job took me to the sites of new bicycle improvements: California’s first green bike box, the city’s first physically separated bike lane and bike racks installed on sidewalks. Although these additions are baby steps toward making the city more bicycle friendly, they are important symbols, and they were roundly cheered by bicycle riders who have been starved for even minimal improvements.

As I coasted eastbound down Market nearing Church on my way home from the Lower Haight last night, I was confronted by a grim picture, the stark reality of life that daily bicycle commuters intimately imagine any time a door is opened into our path, or a vehicle makes an unsuspecting right or left turn without seeing, or caring, that we are riding there.

At the scene, to my left, a woman was lying in the crosswalk on 14th Street, surrounded by paramedics and SFPD officers. The intersection was illuminated by the flashing red and blue lights of emergency vehicles and patrol units. My first thought was, "another serious pedestrian injury or fatality in a crosswalk."

The injured woman, who appeared to be in her 20s, was in fact hit by a northbound
driver in a gray Toyota Camry making an illegal left turn onto 14th Street from
Church, according to a witness. She was on a bicycle and
the wrecked light-blue 70s Gitane ten-speed, with its crank arms and wheels bent, was resting on a utility pole outside
Trigger. It was hard to tell, but it appeared as though she had been seriously injured: her head
was in a brace. The driver, an unidentified woman, remained behind the
wheel, parked in the crosswalk, talking on a cell phone while
paramedics tended to the victim and officers interviewed witnesses.

The injured woman was then loaded
onto a gurney and into the ambulance, where she remained surrounded by
paramedics, and was rushed to the hospital. The only witness I could find was Carlos Corujo, the owner of the Freewheel Bike Shop in the Mission, who saw the whole thing, with his 3-year-old niece in his arms.

"I
was walking across the crosswalk and I saw a girl on a bike coming the
other direction and she was hit while the driver was taking a left-hand
turn," he said. "I looked at the
light right after the accident just to see who had the right of way,
for sure, and the bicyclist had the right of way." He pointed out that
a sign nearby said it is illegal to make a left turn onto 14th Street. In fact, there are three signs around the intersection.

crash_scene_2.jpgThe driver remained in her vehicle talking on a cell phone during the investigation.

And now to the very disconcerting part about the police. As I tried to get information from three SFPD police officers on the scene of the crash, two of them showered me with unadulterated disdain for bicyclists and pedestrians. One officer said she thought bicyclists and pedestrians are always at fault in crashes and that they are stupid for not watching out for drivers. She was very upset with cyclists running red lights. She told me the bicyclist was at fault in this crash without any knowledge that a witness was saying the opposite.

Another officer complained that bicyclists should be ticketed a lot more, then he said that he thought San Francisco bicyclists should all be moved to Treasure Island, where presumably they wouldn’t be in the way. Though I deplore the argument made by some that cyclists are second-class citizens or that they face bias and discrimination in a way that resembles African Americans or other people of color in the U.S., this perverse suggestion by a sworn officer of the law is despicable. When it dawned on him that his bigotry might make it into my story, given
the bright pink SFPD press badge dangling around my neck, he made a slightly menacing reference to memorizing the information on my pass.

In a follow-up interview today, Corujo said that when he was being interviewed by the officers they seemed to have a preconceived idea of what happened, and were fixated on confirming whether the woman had lights on her bike.

"It seems like they were trying to bias the story to even out the score or something," said Corujo. "I don’t know if they were even listening to the idea that [the driver] had made an illegal turn."

Bicycle riders routinely report this kind of hostile reaction from the people sworn to protect and serve, but when I interviewed San Francisco’s new police chief,
George Gascon, a few months ago, I was encouraged that he seemed to be
more open to embracing bicyclists than his predecessor, Heather Fong. He even promised to go on a bike ride with
Streetsblog, though we’re still awaiting a firm date. 

Even if Chief Gascon’s approach to enhancing the effectiveness of his police force through Compstat bodes well for the city in certain respects, no amount of data analysis will dispel preconceived notions and prejudice among his personnel. The bias against bicyclists by some SFPD officers is a deeply endemic
problem on the force that needs to be addressed immediately, especially
as the city is installing more bicycle improvements, and the number of
bicyclists is expected to soar.

I can’t help but wonder what the "accident" report from last night is going to say. I imagine it will fault the bicyclist, despite what Corujo said, and it’s very likely the driver won’t be cited. Clearly, in the minds of these officers, drivers hold an entitlement to the streets, and bicyclists and pedestrians be damned.

For the sake of the injured woman on 14th and Church and for any cyclist involved in a crash in San Francisco, the San Francisco Police Department must not disregard the rights of anyone, particularly people who choose one form of mobility over another.

All of this was no surprise to Leah Shahum, the executive director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition.

"It’s not only deeply disturbing that this bias against bicyclists
still exists within the SF Police Department, but I believe it is
illegal, given the Department’s responsibility to uphold the law fairly
and without personal bias. Chief Gascon should make it a priority
to educate his officers and hold them accountable. Without leadership
from the new Chief, there is no doubt in my mind that bicyclists will
continue to bear the brunt of a dangerously biased police force. In
this day and age, San Francisco cannot turn a blind eye to this."

SFPD public affairs returned my phone calls late this afternoon, and was expected to get back to me with a response, and more details on the crash.

crash_scene_4.jpg
  • peternatural

    In online comments here or on sfgate (especially) there are usually lots of complaints about how terribly behaved and dangerous cyclists are (never stopping for stop signs and red lights, etc.)

    But in my own experience traveling around the city each day I basically never have problems with cyclists. (I can tell there must be lots of badly behaved cyclists because so many drivers seem afraid of them and will yield even when the driver has the right of way.)

    So the other night I walked down Page St. (a bike route) from the upper Haight to the “wiggle” in the lower Haight and back, and kept my eye out for cyclists to see how many did dangerous stuff or failed to yield. Result: I saw about a dozen cyclists and none failed to yield when they should yield. (At stop signs, usually there was no other traffic or pedestrian and the cyclist would roll through). I crossed the street a few times and was never menaced by any car or bike. Actually, every driver and cyclist that I saw behaved well.

    Yes, you will occasionally encounter bad behavior by drivers or cyclists. But if you yourself keep aware of your surroundings and follow the rules and exercise common courtesy you will rarely if ever have problems.

  • I was on a group ride not too long ago. We were riding down Valencia street. A woman in a car decided to drive right through the middle of the ride (maybe 100 people were participating). Everyone was waiting for the light to change and she decided she wanted to wait at the front, even if that meant driving through the crowd. This was in front of the Mission Police Station and there were 2 officers standing watching the whole event. When I rode up to one to lodge a complaint against the driver, the officer flat out refused to take a report and told me I had to go inside and “wait in line at the window”.

    While there are wonderful officers in the SFPD, so many of them are bound by a tradition of being obstreperous. They refuse to see situations as individual ones and instead lump everything bicycle related into one, big, stupid bag of prejudice and ineffectiveness. Many of them can not even pretend to be impartial and will willingly and openly blame victims for being victimized.

    The whole department needs good old customer service training. They need to learn how to speak more effectively. They need a lot of practice in impartiality. More of them need to come out of their cars and start walking a riding their beats (I have found beat cops to be way easier to deal with on average).