Streetsblog Interview: SFPD Captain Al Casciato, Head of Traffic Company

A bicyclist getting ticketed on Valencia Street earlier this year. Photo: Bryan Goebel

In light of the increased enforcement on Market Street, and stories I’ve been hearing from bicyclists about being targeted for minor infractions, I’ve had a number of questions for the San Francisco Police Department. I decided to turn to the person who heads up the SFPD’s Traffic Company, Captain Al Casciato, who is also a bicyclist.

We talked about a wide range of issues involving cops and bicyclists. Reading the transcript I realized there were some missed opportunities and follow-up questions I should have asked, but I hope it will be part of an ongoing dialogue with SFPD, and welcome your questions for a future interview.

Bryan Goebel: The first question that I would like to ask cuts right to the heart of what some bicyclists feel about SFPD, and that is, does the San Francisco Police Department have a bias against bicyclists?

Captain Al Casciato: No, I don’t think so. I don’t think that’s true. Because we have a lot of officers who are bicyclists, and a lot of us are bicyclist enthusiasts in our off duty time, and the officers you see on bicycles at the various stations and stuff, they’re all volunteers. And when we put the bicycling course out for officers to become bicycle officers there are plenty of sign ups, more than there are positions.

BG: So when an officer goes through training at the academy does he or she learn how to deal with bicyclists?

AC: I don’t know what the academy curriculum is right now.

BG: Let me rephrase the question. What type of training do San Francisco police officers receive to deal with bicyclists?

AC:  Generally, I don’t have an answer to that, because I’m not in the training department. But within traffic we train ourselves, we have our own in-service training, and our liaison officer, Sergeant Pat Tobin, is responsible for keeping our officers on the motorcycles up to date on everything that’s going on with the Bicycle Coalition, and with issues regarding the bicyclists. And he coordinates the programs, like when they handed out all the lights, the bicycle lights, he coordinates those programs. He coordinates the enforcement programs. They do give bicyclists a lot of admonishments. They do cite bicyclists for going through crosswalks and running the red lights, especially with pedestrians present. And they also cite for bicyclists who cut off vehicles, large vehicles, and are driving through traffic cutting off vehicles, because those two violations are what causes the most injury to pedestrians, and the other one is how bicyclists mostly get killed.

BG: The chief has denied this, and I know public affairs has denied this as well, but we are definitely seeing a lot more bicyclists getting ticketed, especially on Market Street. Is there a targeted effort to crack down on bicyclists?

AC: On Market Street it’s a targeted effort to crack down on everybody’s behavior. You see, on August 6th all the officers that remained at the Traffic Bureau, a lot of officers were assigned to the stations, but the officers that remained at the Traffic Bureau became citation-only officers, or enforcement only. Not citation, enforcement only. And what you’re seeing is a greater presence on Market Street, because Market and 6th Street are our target corridors. Market, Mission, 6th Street. And that’s in response to requests from the MTA and the Mayor’s Pedestrian Safety Task Force.

BG: Can you clear up some myths about giving out tickets? For example, do officers have a quota to reach with bicyclists?

AC:  A quota is illegal by the California Vehicle Code.

BG: So none of your officers are under any pressure to go after bicyclists?

AC:  No, no.

BG: We did a story recently that talked about the special enforcement that was done on a Friday, and SFPD has said that it’s not targeting bicyclists, and yet the amount of tickets that were handed out were mostly given to bicyclists, and there wasn’t a single driver that was cited.

AC: That was Southern station’s program?

BG: Exactly.

AC:  Right.

BG: So I guess my question to you is folks like Walk SF and the Bike Coalition believe that the enforcement should be targeted, and that basically, as Leah Shahum said, there should be equal opportunity enforcement of those actions that are putting others at risk. She says there’s a hierarchy of dangerous types of behavior and that those threatening the most people should be prioritized for enforcement. What is your response to that?

AC: I agree. That’s why – in particular to the bicycle, bicyclists putting the pedestrians at risk by going through the cross walks and violating the pedestrian right of way is number one. Number two is the bicyclists who are riding unsafely and cutting off large vehicles and vehicles, and cutting in and out of traffic, and that’s how they get killed, that’s the other violation that needs to be addressed. I think those two – everything else in between is probably admonishable, but I think those two are something that we need to concentrate on, because those are behaviors that put people at risk. Mostly one, putting others at risk, and two putting yourself at risk.

BG: And you said that you ride a bike?

AC:  Yes I do.

BG:  Well, I’m just curious, what do you feel – I mean, there obviously is a big rise in bicycling on Market Street, which is great to see, and I know that as there are more bicyclists that perhaps there may be some period of adjustment?

AC: I agree. I mean, there’s an aggression out there too. I was at Embarcadero the other day, and I walked my bike because there was a lot of people, and I was down near the Waterbar heading up towards the Ferry Building. So I was walking, and some guy about 300 pounds, I mean this guy was in shape, 300 pounds, he’s on a bicycle, he’s flying through all the people. I mean, I could feel his blast of wind when he passed me. And I mean if he hit somebody, especially somebody frail, they’re going to really go down hard. But he wasn’t doing anything illegal because it allows for bicyclists to ride on the promenade. It allows that. But in my opinion he was unsafe because he was going too fast for the conditions.

BG: I hear you there. And I guess as the chief was explaining the idea behind the enforcement is a lot of it is just about getting the word out that you’re doing the enforcement, which can have the ability to change behavior.

AC: Right, exactly. But here what you’re looking at is huge cultural change. I mean, if you think about cultural changes, what has been the major cultural change in traffic in San Francisco in the last ten years? What do you think it is? It’s running red lights. Do you know why?

BG: Why?

AC: We installed the cameras. When we installed the cameras, tickets were left and right. Everybody knew there was a red light problem, because people sped up to get through the red light. When the light turned yellow that meant speed up, get through the red, okay? And we have a horrible number of accidents related to red light violations. And so when we put up the cameras we had thousands of tickets. It was like a money boom. But it isn’t a money boom that we should have or expect. So now what’s happened is when you look at jurisdictions throughout California, people are obeying the law and they’re not running through the red lights. So the camera tickets are really, really down, so revenues are down, and some jurisdictions which were only doing it for the revenue and not for the safety factor are thinking about cancelling their programs because they’re not making any money out of them. But what’s the value of human life?  But here, now most of the tickets that we see on the red light camera are people from out of town not accustomed to the area.  There are not a lot of tickets from the people who reside in the area, or work in the area, because now that they’re used to the red light cameras.

BG: Since you are a bicyclist, let me ask you this question. I really feel personally like the only dignified space bicyclists have in the city are those green protected bike lanes on Market Street, and some of the other areas in the city where it’s either a path or a protected bike lane. Do you agree that as we get more infrastructure like this behavior will change?

AC: I think it will change, but I think – I mean, as a bicyclist I feel vulnerable. And actually the green lanes, those are dangerous unless they’re really painted correctly. Any painted surface, once it gets wet, you’re asking for problems. And we had problems with the first green paintings, now they’ve put some other material on them, and some sand and stuff to try to make them less slippery, especially when the fog comes in. One of the reasons I ride a mountain bike is because I want the larger tires to feel safer because there’s too many other hazards in the city. Especially tracks. So both as a motorcycle officer, and as a bicyclist, and then as a pedestrian, I feel vulnerable because we are living in a city that’s very crowded and has a lot of activity, so that it causes a lot of dangers because you have people who are not paying attention, for whatever reason.

BG: Here’s another question about bias. Last year I wrote a pretty long article about a crash that I stumbled upon in which two of the officers on the scene were talking about how bicyclists and pedestrians were always to blame in crashes. And I wrote a huge article about it, I think something may have happened to these officers, they may have been disciplined, I’m not sure what the outcome was.

AC: I don’t remember either.

BG: But when officers are investigating a traffic collision involving a bicyclist, and this is what I’m trying to understand, very often the driver is not cited, the driver is not charged, and I don’t know if this is true or not, but I keep hearing that the officers have to have some kind of special training in order to properly investigate collisions. Can you clear that up for me, is that true or not?

AC: Some of the officers have special training, especially reconstructionists, that’s why we have a major accident investigative team called MAI (Major Accident Investigation). And they’re trained, and they go out with the total station and they take all the measurements and recreate it, and everything else like that. The reason we normally do not cite is because if you issue a citation you muddy up the District Attorney’s case for issuing a charge of vehicular manslaughter, or something like that, whatever the criminal charge is going to be. So that’s why you don’t issue a citation. And also you don’t issue a citation based on the original facts because you don’t know if the original facts are true or not, and in a lot of them we’ve had situations where what is believed to have been the initial – I don’t want to compromise any cases we’ve got now, but what you believe the initial story to be is not what is the true story once we review it with the coroner. Maybe we might find film, cameras, additional witnesses, the physical evidence when the reconstruction is put together that says ‘this couldn’t have happened in the way it’s said in the first report.’ And that’s why you have a preliminary report. And I’ve been around long enough that you look at them and you go ‘Huh?’ Because if you’ve got an intersection and you’ve got four people, one at each corner, you’ve got four different perspectives, and you have four different stories. Two witnesses said one thing to the officers. They both said the same thing. And when we finished, and then when we found that there was a camera on it, and then when we looked at it and put it back together, the two witness statements were partially correct, but totally – for the accident facts, totally not true. And it was because of perception versus what really happened.

BG: So do you have any kind of data on the books to say this amount of drivers is being charged?  I guess there’s really no way to track all that, is there?

AC: No. I mean, you could ask the District Attorney for all their charging records.

BG: On behalf of the San Francisco Police Department, what is your message to bicyclists?

AC: I would say to bicyclists just follow all the rules of the road. For your own safety and the safety of others. Or reverse that, for the safety of others and your own safety. But I would say follow the rules of the road, and don’t be aggressive. What happens is we get hurt when we get aggressive on a bicycle. Because think of it this way: bicycle hits pedestrian, pedestrian loses. Car hits bicycle, bicyclist loses. Truck hits car, car loses. Train hits truck, truck loses. See what I mean? And it’s the mass. And the biggest factor, what people don’t consider, is speed, that it doesn’t matter. It’s like the runner versus the pedestrian that’s walking. The runner that’s running hits a person walking, it’s that speed that causes great injury. And the factor of speed keeps going up and up, and you see it as the factor of injury rises proportionally to the factor of speed. So I think for the bicyclist it’s really picking out your routes. We have to plan different routes depending on how you’re going to go to work, or whether you’re going to something socially, or recreationally, but I think you have to pick in advance, use your safety equipment, use your helmet. A big thing is the helmet. I mean, we look at so many head injuries that we go ‘Oh no, what a waste.’  Because they could have survived. Or the injuries could have been mitigated in some way, even when they do survive.

BG: Well, helmet use is the most contentious issue in the bicycle community. In Europe they generally don’t wear helmets, and there’s research to support both sides. I mean, I don’t like writing about helmet use because it’s just an endless thread that goes on, and on, and on.

AC: Right. But all it is, is then it’s like personal choice. If you wear a helmet, it’s your personal choice. So when you have an accident and you’re not wearing a helmet and your head hits the cement and you get that type of injury, you got it because you weren’t wearing a helmet. I mean, that’s the bottom line. There’s no real debate there, it just happened, it’s factual.

BG: Do you think there is a misconception among some officers though that wearing a helmet is the law? Because I’ve heard this in New York, of cops citing bicyclists for not wearing helmets, but it’s not actually the law in California.

AC:  No, I don’t know of any citation for not having a helmet, except for those under 18.

BG: What do you think the general perception is of bicyclists among officers at SFPD?

AC: I think most of them don’t give it a second thought. I mean, we’re dealing with so many other things too. You’re going from case to case. I mean, it’s almost kind of a neutral. I’ve ridden on the Critical Mass thing for nine years on my motorcycle, and I’ve been involved, engaged with all the officers who have passed through here on their motorcycles in different things, and then I’ve worked with them, and I’ve been the Captain of Tenderloin, Mission, and Northern stations, besides traffic, and I mean, I hate to tell you, we’re not talking about you that much. <laughs>.

BG: So you’re the head of the Traffic Company, right?

AC: Correct.

BG: So what exactly does that job entail?

AC: We’re part of MTA, and so we work with Cheryl Brinkman and that group, that board. We sit on the enforcement committees, and the statistical committees, and the engineering committee for the mayors, and the Pedestrian Safety Executive Directive. And then we also have the red light cameras here, and we have all the safety programs, and the car seat programs. We also have the report review officer. Oh, that goes back to one of the questions you asked earlier, why we don’t cite at the scene. The reports come into the Report Review Officer, and the report review officer goes over the report, we’ll talk to the inspector, and we’ll talk to somebody else, and cases that are not going to be prosecuted then somebody might get a citation in the mail about six weeks later.  So that’s part of the Report Review Officer.  So we have those functions.  We have Hit and Run, we have the Major Accident Investigation team, which is the reconstruction people, they go out. We have the Commercial Vehicles, who are investigation commercial vehicles, citing commercial vehicles, and some of those citations are like $4,000. We have the Hearing Officers here, and the Court Officers. So we have – for the tows, Tow Hearing Officers, and then we have the Court Officers up in the three traffic courts. Actually four now with the juvenile court out at Woodside, 37 Woodside.

BG: So personnel wise how many people do you oversee?

AC: I would say right now about 50 here, and we have 27 that are assigned to the district stations, motorcycles that are assigned to the district stations, that we also coordinate their activities.