San Francisco’s burgeoning bicyclist community is often the victim of bias from police who are investigating collisions, dozens of cyclists said at a hearing at City Hall today.
The hearing of the Board of Supervisors’ neighborhood services and safety committee was prompted by the death of cyclist Amelie Le Moullac, who was struck and killed by a truck at Sixth and Folsom streets in the city’s South of Market neighborhood on Aug. 14.
Police initially did not cite the truck driver, but later found him at fault after a member of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition found surveillance video of the collision that had been captured from a business at the intersection.
Members of the coalition criticized police for not finding the video, as well as for the actions of a sergeant who confronted Le Moullac’s family and friends at a memorial event held at the site a week later and told them the cyclist was at fault.
Police Chief Greg Suhr later apologized for the sergeant’s actions and said the incident would be investigated by the city’s Office of Citizen Complaints.
Despite being found at fault for the collision, the truck driver who struck Le Moullac has not been arrested or charged in the case.
Leah Shahum, executive director of the bike coalition, said the circumstances of Le Moullac’s case are not rare in San Francisco.
“The evidence we’re seeing, there is indeed a problem within the rank-and-file” of the Police Department, Shahum said. “We regularly receive accounts of people treated at best unprofessionally and at worst unjustly.”
Sarah Harling was one of dozens of cyclists who spoke at today’s hearing about their bad experiences with San Francisco police.
Harling was struck by a van making a turn at an intersection in the Bayview District in December 2011 and suffered serious injuries.
She said police falsified a statement in their report saying she told them that she ran through the stop sign at the intersection, and refused to cooperate when she presented statements from witnesses contradicting the report.
“I got the message again and again that because I was riding a bike, I was at fault,” Harling said.
The driver’s insurance company eventually paid the maximum claim amount to Harling, but she had to give a third of it to the attorney who assisted her and said she is still recovering financially and physically from the incident.
Police Deputy Chief Mike Biel acknowledged mistakes were made in the Le Moullac case and its aftermath.
“I myself am pissed that the video wasn’t found” by police, Biel said, adding that the sergeant “used poor judgment” in confronting people at the memorial.
“We could have been better and should have been better,” he said.
However, Biel said police “are not picking on any bicyclists” and train all officers on proper traffic accident investigation procedures.
Police Cmdr. Mikail Ali noted that in September, motorcycle officers in San Francisco issued 1,563 citations citywide but only 20 were to bicyclists or pedestrians.
Ali said the department is also developing a video that will be used to educate the public on traffic laws in the city.
Supervisor Jane Kim, who had requested today’s hearing, said more safety measures are needed to reduce the number of bicyclist and pedestrian fatalities in the city.
In 2010, 14 pedestrians and two cyclists were killed in collisions, while 17 pedestrians and one cyclist were killed in 2011. In 2012, 19 pedestrians and one cyclist were killed, while 10 pedestrians and three cyclists have already been killed in 2013, Kim said.
She said along with increasing safety, “we want to make sure when people die that we have the best investigations to our ability.”
Supervisor Eric Mar said the many stories told about alleged bias by police toward bicyclists were “hard to listen to” and “horrifying.”
Mar said the city has ambitious goals for increasing bicycle use in the city but will not reach them unless bicyclist safety improves.
Supervisor David Campos said he plans to request another committee hearing on the issue as a joint meeting with the city’s Police Commission to see whether any police procedures should be changed.
Dan McMenamin, Bay City News