A Troubling Story of SFPD Bias Against Bicycle Riders
by Bryan Goebel on December 4, 2009
Thursday was a momentous day for the growing and diverse population of people who ride bicycles in San Francisco, though as I’m about to relate to you, the city still has a steep hill to climb, particularly in the San Francisco Police Department.
All day, my job took me to the sites of new bicycle improvements: California’s first green bike box, the city’s first physically separated bike lane and bike racks installed on sidewalks. Although these additions are baby steps toward making the city more bicycle friendly, they are important symbols, and they were roundly cheered by bicycle riders who have been starved for even minimal improvements.
As I coasted eastbound down Market nearing Church on my way home from the Lower Haight last night, I was confronted by a grim picture, the stark reality of life that daily bicycle commuters intimately imagine any time a door is opened into our path, or a vehicle makes an unsuspecting right or left turn without seeing, or caring, that we are riding there.
At the scene, to my left, a woman was lying in the crosswalk on 14th Street, surrounded by paramedics and SFPD officers. The intersection was illuminated by the flashing red and blue lights of emergency vehicles and patrol units. My first thought was, "another serious pedestrian injury or fatality in a crosswalk."
The injured woman, who appeared to be in her 20s, was in fact hit by a northbound driver in a gray Toyota Camry making an illegal left turn onto 14th Street from Church, according to a witness. She was on a bicycle and the wrecked light-blue 70s Gitane ten-speed, with its crank arms and wheels bent, was resting on a utility pole outside Trigger. It was hard to tell, but it appeared as though she had been seriously injured: her head was in a brace. The driver, an unidentified woman, remained behind the wheel, parked in the crosswalk, talking on a cell phone while paramedics tended to the victim and officers interviewed witnesses.
The injured woman was then loaded onto a gurney and into the ambulance, where she remained surrounded by paramedics, and was rushed to the hospital. The only witness I could find was Carlos Corujo, the owner of the Freewheel Bike Shop in the Mission, who saw the whole thing, with his 3-year-old niece in his arms.
"I was walking across the crosswalk and I saw a girl on a bike coming the other direction and she was hit while the driver was taking a left-hand turn," he said. "I looked at the light right after the accident just to see who had the right of way, for sure, and the bicyclist had the right of way." He pointed out that a sign nearby said it is illegal to make a left turn onto 14th Street. In fact, there are three signs around the intersection.
And now to the very disconcerting part about the police. As I tried to get information from three SFPD police officers on the scene of the crash, two of them showered me with unadulterated disdain for bicyclists and pedestrians. One officer said she thought bicyclists and pedestrians are always at fault in crashes and that they are stupid for not watching out for drivers. She was very upset with cyclists running red lights. She told me the bicyclist was at fault in this crash without any knowledge that a witness was saying the opposite.
Another officer complained that bicyclists should be ticketed a lot more, then he said that he thought San Francisco bicyclists should all be moved to Treasure Island, where presumably they wouldn’t be in the way. Though I deplore the argument made by some that cyclists are second-class citizens or that they face bias and discrimination in a way that resembles African Americans or other people of color in the U.S., this perverse suggestion by a sworn officer of the law is despicable. When it dawned on him that his bigotry might make it into my story, given the bright pink SFPD press badge dangling around my neck, he made a slightly menacing reference to memorizing the information on my pass.
In a follow-up interview today, Corujo said that when he was being interviewed by the officers they seemed to have a preconceived idea of what happened, and were fixated on confirming whether the woman had lights on her bike.
"It seems like they were trying to bias the story to even out the score or something," said Corujo. "I don’t know if they were even listening to the idea that [the driver] had made an illegal turn."
Bicycle riders routinely report this kind of hostile reaction from the people sworn to protect and serve, but when I interviewed San Francisco’s new police chief, George Gascon, a few months ago, I was encouraged that he seemed to be more open to embracing bicyclists than his predecessor, Heather Fong. He even promised to go on a bike ride with Streetsblog, though we’re still awaiting a firm date.
Even if Chief Gascon’s approach to enhancing the effectiveness of his police force through Compstat bodes well for the city in certain respects, no amount of data analysis will dispel preconceived notions and prejudice among his personnel. The bias against bicyclists by some SFPD officers is a deeply endemic problem on the force that needs to be addressed immediately, especially as the city is installing more bicycle improvements, and the number of bicyclists is expected to soar.
I can’t help but wonder what the "accident" report from last night is going to say. I imagine it will fault the bicyclist, despite what Corujo said, and it’s very likely the driver won’t be cited. Clearly, in the minds of these officers, drivers hold an entitlement to the streets, and bicyclists and pedestrians be damned.
For the sake of the injured woman on 14th and Church and for any cyclist involved in a crash in San Francisco, the San Francisco Police Department must not disregard the rights of anyone, particularly people who choose one form of mobility over another.
All of this was no surprise to Leah Shahum, the executive director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition.
"It’s not only deeply disturbing that this bias against bicyclists still exists within the SF Police Department, but I believe it is illegal, given the Department’s responsibility to uphold the law fairly and without personal bias. Chief Gascon should make it a priority to educate his officers and hold them accountable. Without leadership from the new Chief, there is no doubt in my mind that bicyclists will continue to bear the brunt of a dangerously biased police force. In this day and age, San Francisco cannot turn a blind eye to this."
SFPD public affairs returned my phone calls late this afternoon, and was expected to get back to me with a response, and more details on the crash.