Unintended Consequences: Defund the Police and San Francisco's Traffic Fatalities


There was a horrific crash in San Francisco last month. A 78-year-old woman driving a Mercedes SUV crashed into a bus stop where a family of four were waiting as they took a trip to the zoo.


The tragic crash happened on March 16 while the family was on the way to the zoo and waiting at a West Portal bus stop at Ulloa Street and Lennox Way...

Diego Cardoso de Oliveira, and his 2-year-old son Joaquin died at the scene. The mother, Matilde Ramos Pinto, and infant Caue Ramos Pinto de Oliveira were hospitalized. The mother died of her injuries the next day and the baby succumbed March 20.

The driver, Mary Fong Lau, has been booked on "suspicion of felony vehicular manslaughter, felony reckless driving causing bodily injury, and additional traffic violations that include driving at an unsafe speed." Lau was initially under arrest in the hospital but was released from custody as the investigation into the crash continued beyond the initial 48 hours. But an eyewitness has claimed the driver was speeding and a report says she was driving on the wrong side of the road.

"I was the only one here. Only me and them," said Cornelio Godinez Velasquez one of the witnesses of the crash.

Still shaken, Godinez Velasquez said he tried his best to save the newborn that was struck and later died. He confirmed the driver was speeding.

"Yes, it was really fast," said Godinez Velasquez in Spanish.

On the report, SFMTA said the driver "drove on the wrong side of the road and onto the sidewalk, struck the library and struck the victims, who were waiting at the bus shelter."

The death of this entire family has put a spotlight on the city's efforts to reduce traffic fatalities. Ten years ago the city announced something called the Vision Zero pledge.


The City Hall event marked the 10-year anniversary of the city’s “VisionZero” pledge, adopted from an international movement of anti-car and pro-pedestrian-and-cyclist urban activists. The goal, per the “zero” in the slogan, was to eliminate all traffic fatalities. But the campaign has simply not worked: there were 34 deaths in 2013, the year before the city adopted its Vision Zero goal. There were 39 fatalities last year, and already 11 deaths in 2024.

Why hasn't the effort to bring traffic fatalities to zero been more successful? The editor-at-large of the SF Standard, Adam Lashinsky, suggested a very simple reason.

There are many culprits for our unsafe streets, but this one is the clearest: In recent years, the San Francisco Police Department has all but ceased writing tickets for stop sign infractions. The department issued 68 citations for blown stop signs in January. It wrote nearly 14 times as many, 940, in the same month a decade ago. Enforcement of other violations has followed a similar trajectory...

Their distaste for traffic stops was further enabled when the Police Commission prohibited certain kinds of stops (though not for running a stop sign) earlier this year. And a 2015 state law added paperwork to ensure that police aren’t racially profiling suspected offenders. 

Yet beyond all those contributing factors, it’s understaffing, not laziness, that is the primary reason enforcement is down, according to police officials. The SFPD is currently short a total of 542 officers. Fewer cops on the street means fewer driving-violation tickets, especially given that the department’s priority—appropriately—remains violent crime.


Bottom line: Too few officers writing far too few traffic tickets. As with any other type of law enforcement, if people believe there are no consequences to breaking the rules, the rules will be broken more often. San Francisco wants law and order but increasingly what it has is just law. The difference is enforcement.

City Supervisor Ahsha Safaí, who is now running for mayor, claimed he was heartbroken by the accident mentioned above and lashed out at the city's red tape and its police department.

It shouldn’t take years to implement a traffic signal, a stop sign or any other traffic calming measure that could save lives. I’m outraged at the inefficiency of all agencies involved that have been mired in bureaucratic delays rather than accelerating and implementing life-saving measure...

Unfortunately, we also know that traffic calming isn’t enough by itself. Traffic enforcement is at an all-time low in San Francisco, despite data that shows moving violations—including speeding, violating pedestrian right-of-way in a crosswalk, running red lights, running stop signs and failing to yield while turning—are the most likely to cause harm or injury. 

That is why, along with traffic calming, the San Francisco Police Department must step up enforcement in high-injury corridors and enforce our traffic laws. We also need to educate and inform the public about traffic safety while building trust and faith between the police and our communities.


Reading Safai's description of the problem, you'd never know that he was personally involved in blocking an effort to hire more police officers. I wrote about what became known as the "cop tax" proposition here, but briefly here's what happened.

A year ago, two city supervisors put forward a measure that would mandate minimum staffing for the SFPD. Supervisor Ahsha Safaí didn't like that proposal and created a poison pill that would turn the measures own sponsors against it.

At the Board of Supervisors’ Rules Committee, Supervisor Ahsha Safaí proposed amendments that Dorsey called “hostile” and a “poison pill” during a testy discussion...

Safai’s amendments proposed making the staffing mandate contingent on certifying that a “future tax” could fund the measure. Dorsey earlier agreed to some amendments to the measure, including reducing the minimum staffing level from 2,182 to 2,074. But he decried linking the staffing mandate to a new tax, saying that fully staffed police “is part of the baseline obligation of what a well-functioning city government should do.”

“This is holding San Franciscans hostage … for a tax hike,” Dorsey countered. “This is making San Francisco into the Spirit Airlines of municipal governments. I think it would be funny if it weren't so harmful.”

So instead of being a proposition that could bring staffing levels up (meaning more officers to write traffic tickets), Safai put forward the "cop tax" version which was opposed by the original sponsors and which failed in last month's election.


I can't prove it but it looks to me as if this was the purpose of the poison pill all along. Supervisor Safai wanted to kill minimum staffing and this was a very dishonest way to do it, one that allowed him to claim he supported more public safety even as he was blocking a version of the measure that could have passed and provided more public safety.

And yet, when there's a terrible accident, Supervisor Safai is quick to blame all-time low traffic enforcement and demand the police department "step up." Of course it would be a lot easier to step up if they had 400-500 more officers to do it with. Supervisor Safai is the reason they don't. 

Four years after it became clear that defunding the police was a terrible idea, we still have elected official in San Francisco playing games with police staffing. Hopefully voters who want safer streets will keep that in mind.

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