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 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.