Victims Share Tales of SFPD Anti-Bike Bias and Hostility at City Hall

At the scene of this 2009 crash where a driver made an illegal turn and hit a woman on a bicycle, an SFPD officer ##http://sf.streetsblog.org/2009/12/04/a-troubling-story-of-sfpd-bias-against-bicycle-riders/##told Streetsblog’s Bryan Goebel## that he thought all San Franciscans who ride bikes should be moved to Treasure Island. Photo: Bryan Goebel

When Sarah Harling was hospitalized by a minivan driver who made a left turn into her at a stop sign intersection, she says the SFPD officer who filed the police report included a fabricated statement from her claiming that she “approached the stop sign without stopping.”

Sarah Harling. Image: SFGovTV

Harling said she tried to submit a response to the numerous “factual errors” in the police report, but an officer at SFPD’s Richmond Station “raised his voice to lecture me about how traffic laws apply to cyclists too, how he’d never let his children ride bikes in the city, and then told me repeatedly, ‘I’m not telling you you can’t leave this here, but you just need to understand that sometimes things get lost.'”

“I left the station in tears,” she said.

Harling later hired an attorney, who collected witness statements and a photo, which showed the driver to be at fault and led the driver’s insurance company to settle for his or her maximum amount of coverage available.

“To say that the San Francisco Police Department failed to investigate my crash is not quite accurate. Rather, they refused to. Repeatedly,” said Harling. “I got the message, again and again, that because I had been riding my bicycle, it was my fault.”

Harling was one of dozens of bicycle riders who shared stories of hostile encounters with San Francisco police at a hearing held by a Board of Supervisors committee last week, testifying to what appears to be an anti-bike bias among many officers when it comes to investigating conflicts and crashes between people driving and biking.

“It’s not everyone in the force, but there is a systemic problem among police department officers when it comes to treating people fairly and equally who are biking and walking,” said Leah Shahum, executive director of the SF Bicycle Coalition. “We have regular accounts of people who are treated, at best, unprofessionally, and at worst, unjustly.”

The hearing comes after the fumbled investigation of the death of 24-year-old Amelie Le Moullac, who was run over by a truck driver at Folsom and Sixth Streets in August. SFPD investigators apparently didn’t bother to ask nearby businesses if they had surveillance footage of the crash, though an SFBC staffer found it within 10 minutes. After seeing the  footage, SFPD found the truck driver at fault. Although the SFPD has said it submitted the case to the district attorney to examine for charges, the current status of the case is unclear.

At the memorial and rally held for Le Moullac, immediately after which the SFBC found the footage, SFPD Sergeant Richard Ernst parked his cruiser in the Folsom bike lane to make a point that the onus is on bicycle riders to pass to the left of right-turning cars. Ernst declared all three victims who have been killed this year to be at fault, including 48-year-old Diana Sullivan, who was sitting stopped at a red light at King and Third Streets in March when a trucker ran her over.

Such stories are reported regularly by victims who say officers have automatically assumed they were at fault in crashes, made false claims about bicycling and traffic laws, and even made threats. In one such story reported by Streetsblog in March 2012, a couple bicycling on Oak Street along the Wiggle (before the existing bike lane was installed) was harassed by a driver who injured one of the victims. The officer who responded at the scene threatened to throw the bleeding victim in jail for “vandalizing the vehicle.”

When people who are bicycling ask SFPD for help, they often report that officers respond by voicing their general negative perceptions of people who bike, casting them as scofflaws and showing indifference toward their testimony. In some cases, officers in cars have even reportedly harassed bicycle riders on the street.

Kathy Kora speaks with SFPD Deputy Chief Mike Biel behind. Image: SFGovTV

Kathy Kora, who’s nearly 70, said she was recently bicycling downtown on Kearny Street, being chased by an SUV driver who was “honking and yelling names at me.” When she spotted a police officer and told him, “I think he’s trying to hurt me, the officer just looked at me and said, ‘Well, cyclists don’t stop at lights.'”

“I said, ‘Well what has that got to do — I wish you would talk to that driver. He’s stopped right there, he’s waiting for me.’ I felt like, well I shouldn’t cycle anymore because I’m almost 70 and I’d like to live a few more years.”

Robin Levitt of the Hayes Valley Neighborhood Association said that in regular meetings with the SFPD, organization members asked department officials what they can do to make the neighborhood’s traffic-heavy streets safer. In response, “The police immediately talked about how bicyclists run red lights and stop signs as if to suggest they were at fault for all the collisions that occur,” he said.

Miles Cooper, an attorney who represents people injured in crashes while walking and bicycling, said that SFPD reports on bike/ped crashes reports are typically very short compared to cases involving motor vehicle occupants, and that further investigation usually finds that they falsely blamed the victim. “Vehicle manslaughter and vehicular homicide needs to be treated as the crime that it should be,” he said.

Although SFPD Chief Greg Suhr and Traffic Company Commander Mikail Ali showed up briefly at the hearing, they apparently weren’t able to attend at the appropriate time to speak due to other commitments. But SFPD Deputy Chief Mike Biel denied that there was any bias at the SFPD. He said he was “pissed that the video wasn’t found” by investigators in Le Moullac’s case, and said Sgt. Ernst “used poor judgment.”

Some supervisors and speakers said it’s easy to imagine that many police officers carry the attitude that bicycles don’t belong on the streets, since it’s a commonly-held attitude in a car-centric society. Many San Francisco police officers also have little or no experience riding bicycles in the city, but spend much of their time behind the windshield of a cruiser. That, said Matt Kaftor, lends itself to an “experiential bias towards motor vehicle operation.”

“I don’t think police officers are any different from regular people,” said Supervisor Norman Yee. “We’re going through a transition where we’re moving from basically vehicles ruling the streets to having to share the streets.”

“We have to acknowledge that we have these attitudes that are shaped by conditions that they’re used to.”

Shahum agreed: “Our environment is changing,” she said. “The attitudes among officers are not necessarily keeping pace.”

Supervisor Jane Kim, who never rode a bike growing up in Manhattan, admitted that she “had a bias against cyclists” when she moved to San Francisco. “It’s been over many years that I’ve been educated about how to share the road… now I’m a cyclist. I biked to work this morning. There’s been a shift in my thinking, as well.”

Some speakers suggested that police officers spend some time on bike patrol to experience the streets from a bicycling perspective. “They’ve got to learn what it feels like to be in city traffic,” said Stephen Bingham of San Rafael, whose daughter, Sylvia Bingham, was killed while bicycling in Cleveland in 2009 after being run over by a truck driver.

In a contrast to stories of bike crash investigations not being taken seriously by the SFPD, Bingham’s case was treated by investigators as a “homicide,” her father said, and the driver was sentenced to three years in prison and lost his driver’s license. “These are homicides,” he said.

“You can’t make everyone [in the SFPD] think a certain way,” said Kim, “but we can encourage our officers to understand that we’re all residents of the city and sharing these roads.”

After the two-and-a-half hour hearing, Supervisor David Campos said the issues deserve further attention, and said he plans to hold a joint hearing with the Police Commission to dig into the matter further. Campos noted that he believes Chief Suhr “is taking the issue seriously and is making it a priority.”

Here are a few of the other stories told at the hearing:

  • One woman said she was stopped at a light in the middle of the right-most traffic lane on Kirkham Street at 19th Avenue on her commute from the Sunset to Cole Valley on Monday last week when the driver of a quietly-moving Prius “swerved right next to me on my right.”

    The officer “told me that if someone kicked my car, I would also get out of my car and push them off their bike. His exact words to me.”

    “I said, ‘Hey!,’ and reactively stuck my foot out, and I bumped the guy’s car with my foot,” she said. The driver got out of his car and pushed her off her bike. Another motorist stopped, got out of his car, took a picture of the driver and called the police. When police from Taraval Station arrived, an officer told her that kicking the man’s car was battery. “I’m just saying,” the officer reportedly told her, “if you pursue this, you could press charges — what he did was worse, I’m not saying it wasn’t. But what you did was battery.”

    A second officer at the scene, she said, “started talking about Critical Mass … and talking about how the cyclists were out of control, and he also told me that if someone kicked my car, I would also get out of my car and push them off their bike. His exact words to me.”

  • Bert Hill, a bicycle safety instructor and chair of the SF Bicycle Advisory Committee, said he was broadsided by a driver who ran a red light on Market Street in 2010. Despite several statements from witnesses who corroborated his story, he was found at fault by police.

  • Among dozens of written testimonies submitted to the SFBC, Shahum relayed a story from a woman who couldn’t attend because she was injured in a crash in April, for which she was found at fault. The woman was on John F. Kennedy Drive in Golden Gate Park, biking with her son in a seat and husband on another bike, when she said she signaled and merged out of the bike lane to make a left turn. A driver hit her and her son from behind. When police arrived, “They spent more time questioning her and her husband on their helmet usage than they did talking to the witnesses,” said Shahum. “The officer then berated them, she said, for leaving the bike lane, and said they shouldn’t have been in the travel lane, which is not the case at all.”

  • Janelle Wong said that on two occasions when she tried to file a report about road rage incidents while biking, Taraval Station officers falsely told her that she couldn’t file formal reports without injuries or property damage. In one of those instances, an officer who wrote down the driver’s license plate number on a sticky note, then complained about the redesign of JFK Drive with parking-protected bike lanes.

  • SFSU lecturer Anthony Ryan.

    Anthony Ryan, a fine arts lecturer at SF State University, said he stopped on the far side of an intersection to make a left turn on Ocean Avenue about two years ago. While waiting for the light to change, he was slammed by a driver who was “trying to beat the light” and suffered injuries for which he had to spend three nights in the hospital and have his jaw wired shut.

    “Even though the driver was clearly running a red, in the report I was cited at fault,” he said. “There were no consequences for the driver.”

  • About a decade ago, Edward Hasbrouck said he was arrested under fabricated charges because he asked a police officer what he’d have to do to get the officer to cite drivers for parking in a bike lane and threatened to file a complaint. Hasbrouck said he was riding on Valencia Street when he encountered the bike lane blocked by drivers waiting for valet parking:

    When I asked the drivers to move, they and the valets cursed and threatened me. When I asked a passing police sergeant to get them to move, he didn’t. Instead, he made me carry my bicycle between the parked cars over to the sidewalk to get by. As I was walking my bike down the sidewalk to leave, I asked the sergeant, “What would I have to do to get you to ticket those double-parked cars in the bike lane? Do I have to take your badge number and report you to the Office of Citizens’ Complaints?”

    At that, he arrested me, went back to the restaurant, and persuaded some of the patrons and a valet to join him in a perjured complaint against me for felony vandalism. They lied so ineptly that the judge not only dismissed the charges against me, but made a rare factual finding of actual innocence and ordered the arrest record expunged, but not before I spent $3,000 on legal fees and spent the night in jail before I could get bailed out.

    I spent the night in jail for asking police to protect my right to ride in the bike lane without interference or assault. This happened a decade ago, but I don’t think much has changed. I could tell you more stories if I had more time.

    The biggest thing that keeps people from bicycling in San Francisco is the fear that motorists will run us down, and that they can do so with impunity.

  • Hal Booth

    No bias here, gneiss. If (or rather, when) I speed I do not claim that speed limits are wrong, stupid or don’t apply. I just use my judgement to decide that the circumstances and risks are worth it given the road conditions at the time, and I accept the consequences if I get caught.

    But I’ve heard cyclists argue that, for instance, coming to a complete stop at a stop sign doesn’t really apply to bikes, and so they regard themselves as being under no obligation to do so, as if they were in Idaho.

    And that therefore SFPD shouldn’t enforce that law.

  • Anonymous

    I forgot to include all of the common violations that can’t often be seen, including driving under the influence, driving without insurance or registration, driving with a suspended or no license, illegally using disabled placards, and on and on.

  • Brandon

    I know one guy (OK, only one guy) who was prosecuted for being drunk on a bike. It’s not like it never happens.

  • Anonymous

    Or could it be that some bicyclists’ antipathy towards to law is in reaction to the inequality, and not the cause of it?

    Pray tell, exactly how compliant will the average bicyclist have to be before the SFPD are obliged to act like professionals?

  • The conviction rate for drivers that kill vulnerable users in SF is about 2% since the turn of the century. It has been increasing in the last couple of years but is still under 10%.

  • Anthony R

    These are ordinary, law abiding people relating their experiences with uneven application of the law by the SFPD. Your comment is irrelevant and unoriginal.

  • Rabi Abonour

    Wait, I’m confused. Were the tires flat when it was stolen or when it was first recovered. If the latter, that’s weird. If the former, then, I don’t know, maybe the thief was riding it…?

  • Rabi Abonour

    In the areas I ride, cyclists do often behave in ways that could be considered reckless, and that could draw the ire of law enforcement. However, cars do the same. Distracted drivers kill people all the time and there is no outrage toward drivers, but bicyclists cruise through stop signs without causing accidents and they are public enemy #1?

  • Re: the crash in Golden Gate Park where a woman and her child were hit from behind while waiting to turn left at a stop sign. The car ran the stop sign. How was the driver not at fault?

  • Al

    Speaking of incentives for bike commuting, my employer donates small amount to registered charities for every bike commute (walking, riding scooter, swimming, jumping on pogo stick or whatever else also counts). I get to pick which charity gets the money for my bike commutes. These small amounts add up to generate about $700-800 each year for local charities just from me commuting to work on a bike. It may seem small amount, but added up over all of my co-workers that also commute to work on bikes, it all adds up to much more impressive number.

  • Wilson Jermaine

    In 2011, in one of the quietest parts of Santa Rosa, CA, about 60 miles north of San Francisco, I’d just dropped my son off at elementary school on our bikes, walked my bike across the street in front of the school, turned to check if anyone was approaching, seeing a Jeep about to go I waved them ahead, turned and waved again, but when they still didn’t go I mounted up and proceeded into the lane. Suddenly I had to stop as a group of kids lurched into the street between two parked cars. Then I continued while a line of cars in the opposite lane blocked any possibility of the Jeep now behind me being able to pass. But after only a few seconds I passed the line of cars and the Jeep accelerated around me. Then, a ways ahead, he pulled over and stopped. And got out. And as I got closer I knew this was it. I’m a large white man, but this was a large black man, and he was pissed. He raised up his arms and shouted, “What’s your problem!” Next he called me a derogatory term for a homosexual. Then as I swerved into the opposite lane to avoid him, he proceeded to chase after me. I looked back incredulously, in total and complete shock, and shouted something about calling the police. His intention was clearly to knock me off my bike onto the pavement. But somehow, whether he gave up or I was too fast, as unlikely as that seems riding my heavy cruiser bike, he never caught me, and when I came out of my stupor I noticed I’d crossed a four way intersection without stopping or looking and had ridden another block again. I looked back to see him driving away, turning the corner at that intersection. I noticed a lady walking back from school and asked if she’d seen that and when she said she had I felt safe enough to stop to call 911. When the lady officer arrived she asked me about which phone number I called, and instructed me in the future not to call 911 but another number. While she stood there, without getting out a notebook or anything I proceeded to try to explain what had just happened. She quickly dismissed the entire thing by mentioning how big I am, yes, but I’m not a criminal so I’ve never been in any street fights, ever, though I didn’t say that because I’m too shy and polite to argue with a police officer, and went on to repeat several times ad nauseum that unless he spit on me, where she came up with this is beyond me, or otherwise made physical contact there was nothing she could do, and she didn’t do anything. Didn’t follow up, didn’t try to figure out what had happened. And it was left to me to figure out this guy was a fellow parent at my kid’s school, a Brazilian immigrant, a part-time judo instructor, whose son had had several altercations at school, leading one to assume the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, and then for me to alter my lifestyle and schedule to avoid this idiot from then on, including sending my kid to afterschool care, and ending our bike rides to school. In conclusion the Santa Rosa police have no interest in resolving these incidents.

  • Anonymous

    The fact that most drivers are consistently driving over the speed limit seems to be the elephant in the room.

  • tigerkite

    You’re just plain lying. Speeding, for example, is the standard and illegal. Tailgating, another extremely dangerous past-time of drivers, is also illegal and very common.

  • Anonymous

    Those would be union rules. It’s not illegal you just have to browbeat the union into accepting it. And honestly I feel that police unions are one of the bigger obstacles to better policing.

  • Shaun

    I ride a bike, drive a car, and also own a motorcycle… from my perspective, about 25% of people just suck at driving anything in general.
    On a bike? Ride extra careful and assume that everyone is not a good driver, make way for faster vehicles. Yes the roads are for cars and bikes, but just get out of the way… no one likes being behind someone that is slower.
    In a car? Don’t fucking drive so close, you can and will kill someone. Don’t do dangerous things to make a point. Remember, you are choosing to drive something huge for convenience. Cars are safer, be aware of others who aren’t as safe.
    On a motorcycle? Your cool. There’s plenty of room for everyone, just watch out for cars. Best of both worlds in my opinion.
    Don’t expect the police to give a shit about the 1000 accidents that happen every day. With exceptions, I would say most accidents could have been avoided. Make sure people can see you when you enter an intersection, don’t assume.

    Source: Never had an accident of any kind with any vehicle.

  • Fay Nissenbaum

    Note that the supervisors stated they were pissed off, yet missed demanding an answer to HOW the Amelie investigation was done. We know the SFBC found the video and shamed the police who lied in public about canvassing security camera footage. BUT the meeting was entitled “Police Department Protocol for Investigating Cyclist and Pedestrian Fatalities and Serious Injuries Resulting from Traffic Collision” . Yet the protocol and investigation methods in use today were never stated! The Supes made comments about being upset, but none nailed down the SFPD on this and it galls me!

    This is a link to the agenda and hearing on the 3rd:

    http://sanfrancisco.granicus.com/MediaPlayer.php?view_id=164&clip_id=18512&meta_id=361749

  • Anonymous

    This is sadly all too unsurprising. I have had very similar interactions with local law enforcement in municipalities near my home. They, along with the city administration, as well as our local transit division, display a practically absurd level of indifference and outright hostility toward cyclists.

    One of these cities displays a sign just at the entrance to the downtown neighborhood reading “Bicycle Capital of the Northwest”. What a joke!
    Not only do the people in these various departments not know the law as it pertains to cyclists (a particularly disturbing problem for police officers), they uniformly take the attitude that cyclists don’t belong on the road and have no rights when they are there (in spite of the fact that the law clearly says otherwise).
    Of course, this is just one symptom that is part of a broader problem that has always been with us, but which seems to have been worsened of late. With the increased latitude granted law enforcement in past decades (thank you terrorists), and the over-militarization of law enforcement (thank you end of Cold War, driving military contractors to seek other sources of revenue), combined with the ever-present risk of power-hungry candidates for police jobs along with the general decline of competency in the US (thanks to a wide variety of causes, mostly related to education funding and the “me first” way children have been raised), law enforcement has gotten much more about confrontation and so much less about “protect and serve”.

    Anyway, that’s a long way of saying…I’m so sorry to hear that things aren’t any better in a place like SF than they are where I live. 🙁

  • Anonymous

    Exactly right. And to that point, another great quote from the article:

    You can’t make everyone [in the SFPD] think a certain way

    Of course you can! At least where the law is concerned. That’s the whole point of having laws. So that everyone is on the same page, “thinking a certain way”.
    Duh.

  • Anonymous

    It is important to understand the distinction between “right-of-way” and the obligation of a motorist to avoid striking a pedestrian.
    If a motorist (or cyclist for that matter) is able to avoid hitting the pedestrian, they are required to. The fact that they have the right-of-way doesn’t allow them to just run people over with impunity.
    But the fact remains, the motorist does have right-of-way with a green light.

  • Guest

    Tires were flat when bike was stolen. Through great SFPD work it was recovered immediately (thief did not have time to ride it) but held in evidence. I personally went and identified my bike right away (tires still flat, seat at my height).

    My point is this. I went from having a great impression of great police work to a suspicion that SFPD took my bike from evidence figuring no one would claim it (stolen bikes are rarely matched to their owners), and used my bike. That is wrong. ***Of course I’m lucky and grateful to get my bike back*** but it is not right if someone in SFPD used it and they could not track it in evidence when I went to claim it.

    Stolen items in evidence are not lost and found troves for cops. Should they be wearing unclaimed jewelry, and using unclaimed smartphones or riding unclaimed bikes? IMO, no. Sure I got lucky and others get nowhere, all I’m saying is this is unexpected conduct to me and really soured an otherwise good experience with SFPD. I did not report this behavior because I figured SFPD would respond like Mario Tanev: count yourself lucky and don’t complain about trivial things.

    And also, I don’t need bike mechanics skills. I wasn’t complaining about having to adjust my seat, I was commenting that I expect SFPD not to use items in evidence and that I expect more integrity from the police. I’ll be quiet and grateful now.

  • Anonymous

    Not to mention rolling stops, double parking, running red lights, driving into crosswalks with pedestrians present, nearly hitting pedestrians due to not looking when making turns, etc. etc. etc.

  • Anonymous

    I was hit by a driver last year while riding through a 4-way stop. He drove right into me after I had stopped and entered the intersection because he didn’t see me. I was lucky that the driver was honest and that there were witnesses. The police made it clear that they understood it was the driver’s fault and that the report would reflect that. The officer then put my damaged bike into his car and gave me a ride home, even carrying my bike up three flights to my door.

    Not all cops are bad ones, but judging by this story it seems my experience was outside the norm.

  • Giuliana S

    You hit the nail on the head, Kevin. What is lawful is not necessarily safe. Laws need to change: additionally, what needs to change is the culture of driving. Even car ads seem to promote driving as an aggressive, “me first” activity.

  • Giuliana S

    I don’t disagree with you at all, ladyfleur. peted66616 expresses far better what I was trying to get across. And, yes, it is shameful that drivers killing pedestrians or cyclists is under-prosecuted. It’s as if victims are mere collateral damage in a rude, hurry-up world. Terrible.

  • A professional

    Police officers are obliged to act like professionals at all times, just like other professionals. Especially police officers.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for an important (if disturbing) article Streetsblog. I would love to see a followup article wherein you interview a lawyer and tell us the most important steps a cyclist can take in the event of an accident to avoid getting in one of these situations. (i.e.: How best to discourage police from disregarding your rights, and how best to gather the most useful evidence on the scene that will provide your best chance of fighting them if they do.)

  • J.r. Bomber

    Stories like these are the reason for my helmet camera, SAD.

  • J.r. Bomber

    A helmet camera is a good first step.

  • Check out the SF Bicycle Coalition’s website for this kind of info.

  • Yeah. It’s sad that we need to protect ourselves with huge investments just so our word will be taken over an obviously lying officer.

  • But expensive. I can get a bike far cheaper than one of those.

  • No matter the speed, a car is a deadly thing if it hits you.

  • Good point. Therefore, we probably need some of these patrols to have specific aims.

  • And how would that get police on the side of bicyclists and pedestrians to have a bike-riding vigilante threatening people with a gun?

  • And cycles and cars have stopping distances. There’s a reason you should look both ways before crossing a street, even if you have right of way.

  • And police have a duty to speak truthfully and professionally. The town that stops for the barest infraction and then willingly lies about the interaction… Give motorists and cyclists no reason to be honest or law abiding, either.

  • Yeah, but they often attest to things which have never been verified or certified. Just passing the test means that portion was right in their heads then.

  • That would be an extra payment for living somewhere more expensive…

  • Greg

    “I reactively stuck my foot out, and I bumped the guy’s car with my foot”

  • mikesonn

    Sticking your foot out can keep you from ending up under the vehicle.

  • J.r. Bomber

    My helmet camera saved me from a false arrest, the camera cost me $150.00 I’ll let you speculate on what the false arrest would have cost.

  • J.r. Bomber

    it cost me about $150.00 well worth it to me. see my youTube channel. as I said to someone else here, it saved me from a false arrest.

  • TheMightyT

    Has there been any follow-up on this? I recently had a police anti-bike bias effect me.

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