A 2014 Resolution for Greg Suhr and SFPD: Stop Blaming Pedestrian Victims

Despite the glimmer of hope brought by the arrest of two reckless drivers who killed pedestrians, the SFPD is still blaming people walking on the streets for getting hit by motorists.

Greg Suhr. Photo: SFPD

According to recent tweets and press statements from SF police, the reason San Franciscans are getting maimed and killed on the streets at an alarming rate has nothing to do with the people driving multi-ton motor vehicles into them. No, it’s because people aren’t walking in fear of drivers.

After a year in which 20 pedestrians were killed — a six-year high — the SFPD could remind drivers that they have a responsibility to keep other people safe on the streets by exercising caution. After all, motorists are piloting machines that can easily turn into weapons, and they hit nearly 1,000 people in 2012. The department’s data shows [PDF] that the five most common causes cited for those crashes are motorist violations, the top one being a failure to yield to pedestrians’ right-of-way in a crosswalk, accounting for 41 percent of all crashes.

Yet this tweet sent out today by the SFPD might as well have been typed out behind the wheel:

This kind of message is consistent with what the public has heard from SFPD Chief Greg Suhr, who, at every opportunity to issue a statement on street safety, has pointed the finger at people walking with cell phones. It’s as if the people who get slammed by drivers every day in the city are criminals.

This has to stop.

In New York City, newly-appointed Police Chief Bill Bratton committed yesterday to an ”intensive focus on traffic issues,” moving the city toward incoming Mayor Bill de Blasio’s “Vision Zero” goal — eliminating traffic deaths within ten years.

Fortunately, some folks in the SFPD appear to be getting it. Thankfully, the department arrested two drivers who hit and killed people on New Year’s Eve who, by all accounts, did nothing wrong. No matter which way you look at it, there’s nothing that 87-year-old Zhen Guang Ng or six-year-old Sophia Liu and her family could’ve done to avoid getting run over. Reckless driving happens — it happens way, way too often — and Suhr’s department needs to grapple with it.

Traffic company commander Mikail Ali has the right idea. He told the SF Examiner this week, “When you behave in such a grossly negligent way, you’re going to find yourself unfortunately going to jail when you take someone’s life on the roadway.” SFPD should model its traffic enforcement efforts with this approach in mind.

But other SFPD officials are still putting out the message that there’s nothing the police can do about reckless driving, that the responsibility to prevent violence lies with victims. After Liu and her family were run over by an Uber driver in the Tenderloin, Lieutenant Julian Hill told ABC 7, ”We have to remember sometimes people in vehicles aren’t paying attention. And so we just have to be diligent as a pedestrian and make sure that the intersection is clear, that the streets are clear.”

Seriously. An SFPD representative basically said that even though they were in the crosswalk with the walk signal, the Liu family should have jumped out of the way of Syed Muzzafar’s SUV.

In 2014, San Francisco can continue ceding streets to reckless driving, which has resulted in so many deaths and injuries, or we can join leading cities that envision bringing an end to traffic violence using proven safety measures and data-driven enforcement.

The SFPD has said it’s committed to its “Focus on the Five” program, and the Police Commission has urged the department to target the most dangerous driving behaviors. But to catch up, the SFPD’s leadership must recalibrate the lens through which it views our streets.