Police pledge new pedestrian safety reforms, and to revisit collision cold case

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Jikaiah Stevens after the collision that cost her over $100,000 in medical bills, as well as traumatic brain injury.
Photos courtesy of Jikaiah Stevens

One might call it the police’s act of contrition. At last night’s (Thu/16) meeting on pedestrian safety, Police Chief Greg Suhr promised to re-open a traffic collision case that left a 31-year-old woman with a traumatic brain injury, causing a loss in her sense of smell and taste, short term memory loss, insomnia, and a loss of motor skills.

Jikaiah Stevens was one of many pedestrians hit by a car last year in San Francisco, and luckily she survived. But she offered a scathing critique of the police’s handling of her case. Though witnesses said the driver ran a red light, the driver faced no consequences for hitting her, she said.

"What is their incentive to drive safely when there are no consequences?" Stevens asked the police chief. Suhr responded with a promise.

“If that driver was not issued a citation, that driver will be issued a citation,” Suhr said, to applause. 

Audio of Chief Greg Suhr pledging to revist Stevens' case, with a video interview with Natalie Burdick of Walk SF. 

Stevens was one of more than 50 public commenters who spoke at last night’s joint Police Commission and Board of Supervisors Neighborhood Services and Safety Committee meeting, and all sounded one message loud and clear: drivers can maim and kill pedestrians with near impunity in San Francisco, and that must end. 

Drivers must face consequences. 

“I’m here very simply to urge you to end the carnage on our streets,” said Natalie Burdick, membership and volunteer director at the nonprofit Walk SF. “These crimes cost the city millions annually, and untold value in terms of squandered human capital.”

Pedestrian deaths reached a high last year, with 21 walkers killed in traffic collisions. Sup. Eric Mar highlighted the lack of funding in Mayor Ed Lee’s Pedestrian Strategy. The documentation for the plan highlights a funding gap of $5-18 million. 

Though the mayor’s failures were touched on, most of the night turned into a persecution of the SFPD’s current policies around enforcing pedestrian safety. “The fact is these statistics have been consistent that two-thirds of pedestrian accidents are the fault of the driver,” Sup. Scott Wiener said at the outset of the meeting. “It’s the fact of the situation.” 

The SFPD has notoriously concentrated its ad campaigns and efforts on pedestrian behavior, not driver behavior, which last night it pledged to correct.

Leah Shahum, director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, was especially scathing in her critique. She said the police have a bias towards cars, conscious or unconscious, and are often dismissive of bicyclists and pedestrians at the scene of a traffic collision. 

“Something is broken. Stories like Jikaiah's are more common than you think,” Shahum said.

But those looking to demonize the police would be sorely disappointed. To his credit, Suhr took most of the criticism right on the chin. He bluntly apologized for a series of missteps towards cyclists and pedestrians the police made recently.

He apologized for a failed investigation into the death of cyclist Amelie Le Moullac, 24, when a citizen found video evidence in the case that the police missed. “Our initial investigation was lacking,” Suhr said. “That was wrong.”

He assured the room that in the future, the SFPD would treat collision cases like criminal cases, right down to thorough evidence gathering.

Suhr then apologized for the behavior of Sgt. Richard Ernst, who interrupted Le Moullac’s memorial to lecture cyclists on safety procedures. “We’re better than that,” he said.

Apologies are one thing, but action is another. Cmdr. Mikail Ali announced the SFPD’s commitment to Sup. Jane Kim’s Vision Zero pedestrian safety plan, which pledges to aim for zero pedestrian collision deaths in San Francisco. 

sfpdstaff

Most of the SFPD's command staff and station captains were present for the entire meeting.

“Our goal for 2014 is to adopt Vision Zero for the calendar year,” Ali said. Part of that will include a “seismic shift” in policy around traffic citations, Suhr told the Guardian after the meeting. Traffic citations will increase, and more data tracking collisions, no matter how minor the injury, will be gathered. That last shift was at the urging of the SFBC’s Shahum, who Suhr called “no shrinking violet.”

Chief Greg Suhr addresses criticisms of the SFPD from the meeting, and commits to Vision Zero plan.

The majority of the SFPD’s command staff and station captains sat in attendance at the meeting last night, a deliberate move, Suhr said, to show them the need to shift how the SFPD handles pedestrian safety. 

“The big issue was, and a complaint I’ve heard over time was, how could there not be a ticket? How can something happen to me and nobody get a ticket?” Suhr told us. “People feel they’ve been less than served.”

“Now they’ve heard it straight,” Suhr said, referring to his command staff and station captains. 

Last night, the SFPD went on the record promising unprecedented changes in ensuring pedestrian safety. Now let’s hold them to it.