San Francisco Police Chief to Review Bicycle, Pedestrian Policies

San Francisco Police Chief George Gascón vowed last week to implement significant crime reducing strategies through his Compstat system and restructured enforcement based on best practices from inside and outside of his department, including two measures that have pedestrian and bicycle advocates astir.

At a press conference with Mayor Gavin Newsom Friday, Gascón said he would reduce overall crime in San Francisco by 20 percent in one year, including a 10 percent reduction in Muni-related crime and a 10 percent reduction in collisions between cars, pedestrians, and cyclists.

When asked for more details about how the SFPD would reduce bicycle and pedestrian injury collisions, SFPD spokesperson Lt. Lynn Tomioka said Compstat would be a start, enabling the department to better analyze data collected about infractions so enforcement could be targeted to dangerous behavior. She also noted that Compstat alone would not be sufficient and that the department is in the process of restructuring its reporting and enforcement policies for drivers, pedestrians, and cyclists.

"It's an area that’s evolving," she said. "The whole report-managing system is being very closely scrutinized, because we track everything by our reporting system. There are a lot of changes that [Chief Gascón] has implemented and a lot more systems that he will change."

Tomioka said the department will look to various station captains for best practices, such as the crosswalk stings conducted by Ingleside Station Captain David Lazar. "Chief Gascón wants to see more visibility for programs that Captain Lazar has found effective and worthwhile," she said, adding that crosswalk stings are good at educating drivers about danger to pedestrians. She said they wanted to see "all stations, not just the pilot station" being more active with innovative enforcement.

"I appreciate Chief Gascon's initiative to reduce vehicle-pedestrian collisions," said Walk SF's Manish Champsee, noting that crosswalk stings were very effective. "By far and away the most common reason for a pedestrian-auto crash is when the driver does not yield the way to the pedestrian."

Tomioka also said they would meld enforcement with education campaigns. "We want to get across that people need to be safe and practice safety," she said, referring to motorists, cyclists and pedestrians alike. Among the dangerous behavior they would target, Tomioka cited drivers running red lights and turning on red without stopping for pedestrians, cyclists running lights and stop signs, and pedestrians crossing on red signals and jaywalking in general.

Champsee was concerned with over-emphasis on jaywalking, which he said, "isn't necessarily a large contributor to pedestrian/auto crashes."

He also noted that "The Netherlands legalized jaywalking several years ago and didn't find an increase in pedestrian injuries and fatalities." 

Bicycle advocates were slow to praise the department's moves, cautioning that enhanced enforcement without a reevaluation of stereotypes associated with cycling, driving, or pedestrian safety could prove ineffective at best.

"How will we bring a focus on the behavior that is most dangerous?" asked San Francisco Bicycle Coalition Program Director Andy Thornley. "It's not just focusing on ticketing people rolling through stop signs but on those behaviors that are truly injurious." When pressed for clarification if that was code for enforcing dangerous driving, Thornley said yes.

"If you walk or bike or take a bus in this city and you watch what happens, it seems pretty clear that most of the danger is coming from the operators of motor vehicles. We are keen to see that the efforts focus on the source of the menace."

Thornley also promoted the change in collision reporting and said that the Statewide Integrated Traffic Records System (SWITRS) often found cyclists equally at fault in collisions, despite recent studies from Toronto and London that found cyclists were at fault in the scantest of cases. Thornley also pointed to anecdotes of bias among officers against cyclists in reporting crashes, such as the incident Streetsblog reported last year with officer bias on clear display (Tomioka said there was fallout from that incident, but wouldn't elaborate).

"That’s not to say that cyclists shouldn’t be exempt from enforcement activity. I think we see, every day, cyclists behaving rudely and selfishly," said Thornley. "We want to emphasize before we go very far, it would be good for all parties to evaluate what really is happening on the streets. If we just go off of our prejudice, we may not get the effective, meaningful enforcement that we really need."

In addition to comments about general enforcement last week, Gascón said he would revisit his department's policy toward Critical Mass bicycle rides and suggested that if a measure banning Critical Mass were put on the ballot, it would pass easily.

Never mind the question of how arguably ineffectual it would be to put bicycle riding on a ballot measure, the threat of clamping down on Critical Mass had regular cyclists fulminating on listservs, and brought up memories of former Mayor Willie Brown's crackdown in 1997. With increased enforcement and hundreds of arrests, Brown only catalyzed cyclists around the resistance to heavy policing and made the rides much larger.

SFPD's Tomioka was cognizant of the ride's history and said her department didn't want to alienate the many people who support Critical Mass. "On the other hand there are those who hate it," she said.

Chief Gascón has tasked Assistant Chief Kevin Cashman to look at their current enforcement policies, particularly in light of budget constraints. She said one solution in addition to possible enforcement changes was the creation of community forums, which she painted as unofficial community advisory councils, where "any member of bicycle groups can inform the community relations unit and the Chief with ideas to make the city much more efficient and safe."

"We’re not naïve to think that everyone will be happy, but something needs to improve with Critical Mass," added Tomioka. "We want to allow people to ride on the streets but not have people stuck in their cars terrified by the riders or unable to get where they need to go."