At a heated community meeting last month, a bike commuter asked SFPD Park Station Captain John Sanford whether he could expect to continue safely treating stop signs as yield signs. Sanford had instituted a crackdown on that behavior, and some ticket recipients said they were told they had to put their foot down at stop signs. Sanford confirmed to the crowd that that requirement does not exist, and insisted that his officers didn’t enforce it.
Sanford then called over Traffic Company Sergeant Frank Harrell, who was in another conversation a few yards away, to consult as an expert on bicycle traffic laws.
Harrell walked over and told the crowd, “The law says that the bicyclist must come to a complete stop and drop one foot.”
In a roar, the group erupted, “No!”
“This is the problem,” one man said to Harrell. “You guys don’t have the rules right.”
Ignorance and misinterpretation of traffic laws among SFPD officers — even the supposed experts — is a sign of the anti-bike bias that pervades the department.
Bike advocates and attorneys say officers routinely fail to accurately cite the laws they enforce against bicyclists, and even fabricate justifications.
“It comes up all the time,” said Michael Stephenson, an attorney who estimates officers have wrongly cited a law in about a third of the bicycle crash cases he’s investigated at Bay Area Bicycle Law (more than 1,000 of them).
Miles Cooper, a bike injury attorney who was there when Harrell falsely cited the stop sign law, said it’s “a classic example of the huge institutional biases that have to be overcome in order for cyclists to be treated as equal on the roadway.”
Cooper was one of dozens who recounted experiences with anti-bike bias at the SFPD at a City Hall hearing two years ago. Supervisors called the hearing after the death of Amelie Le Moullac, who was killed on her bike by a truck driver at Sixth and Folsom Streets, and was initially blamed by police who asserted that the onus is on bicyclists to pass to the left of right-turning vehicles.
The SFPD later found that the trucker was at fault for failing to yield when making a right turn, but only after video of the crash was found by a staffer at the SF Bicycle Coalition. Although the botched investigation sparked outrage and brought political attention to the issue of police bias, the trucker was never charged by the District Attorney’s office.
Leah Shahum, who was executive director of the SFBC at the time of the hearing, now heads the national Vision Zero Coalition. “It’s not surprising that Vision Zero is raising questions and debate about long-held practices around traffic safety,” said Shahum. “This is happening around the country.”
SF is seeing “a realignment of thinking of policies and on-the-ground practices in really significant ways,” she said. “It’s not unusual that there will be individuals within those departments who perhaps don’t fully understand the shift that is happening, and may resist and hold on to ideas from the past.”