How Riding Your Bike Can Land You in Trouble With the Cops — if You’re Black
Riding a bike while Black.
In the past three years, Tampa police have written 2,504 bike tickets — more than Jacksonville, Miami, St. Petersburg and Orlando combined.
Police say they are gung ho about bike safety and focused on stopping a plague of bike thefts.
But here’s something they don’t mention about the people they ticket:
Eight out of 10 are black.
A Tampa Bay Times investigation has found that Tampa police are targeting poor, black neighborhoods with obscure subsections of a Florida statute that outlaws things most people have tried on a bike, like riding with no light or carrying a friend on the handlebars.
Officers use these minor violations as an excuse to stop, question and search almost anyone on wheels. The department doesn’t just condone these stops, it encourages them, pushing officers who patrol high-crime neighborhoods to do as many as possible.
The Times’ findings concern others — Hillsborough Circuit judges and the Public Defender, social rights advocates and some of the leading researchers in race and policing.
“You almost roll your eyes when you read the reports,” said Circuit Judge Tracy Sheehan. “Oh no, another bike stop, another kid riding on the handlebars, here we go. And certainly, we have laws and we should all follow the law, but it occurred to me the stops were all occurring in certain neighborhoods and with certain children, and not in my neighborhood, and not with the white kids.”
Joyce Hamilton Henry, Director of Advocacy for ACLU of Florida, wants to know: “If it’s not racial profiling, what is it?”
The racial breakdown of the tickets suggests police are using their discretion differently when it comes to bikes. For more serious driving offenses, blacks were not more likely to be cited. For failing to stop at a red light in 2014, blacks got only 11 percent of tickets. Bike tickets that year, 81 percent.
Internal police department records show a sustained effort to encourage bike stops as a means to reduce more serious crimes.
Officers get yearly “productivity reports,” calculating, in part, how many tickets they give. One personnel file detailed a “red grid patrol” in which officers are encouraged to “engage and identify offenders through street checks, bike stops and traffic stops.”
In another file, a supervisor told a new officer he should learn rarely used traffic statutes. The fact that he wasn’t familiar with them was noted as a “significant weakness” in his 2012 performance review. The next year, the new officer impressed his bosses with his “dramatic increase” in “self-initiated activity.”
He wrote 111 bike tickets, the most in the department. All but four of the cyclists were black.
Why does this sound so familiar? Oh, yeah:
There are racial disparities in police stops—blacks are stopped twice as often as whites—but they aren’t related to traffic safety offenses, in which cops exercise a little less discretion and violations are equal within groups. Where we see a difference—even after we adjust for driving time (on average, blacks drive more and longer than whites)—is in investigatory stops. In these, drivers are stopped for exceedingly minor violations—driving too slowly, malfunctioning lights, failure to signal—which are used as pretext for investigations of the driver and the vehicle.
Earlier in the piece a police spokesman was quoted thusly:
“We want to see the thefts of bicycles go down. We want to see the safety get better so there are less crashes,” he said. “Whether it leads to something else or not is going to be secondary.”
That spokesman probably has a bridge he’d like to sell you because later in the piece we find out:
Despite the thousands of hours spent by police, court clerks, public defenders, prosecutors and judges on enforcement of bicycle laws, it’s hard to tell what Tampa gets out of them.
Even though 2013 was one of the department’s highest ticketing years, bike crashes still rose the following year by 20 percent. Bike thefts, too, climbed 15 percent.
Also in the article:
Earlier this year, [Police Chief Jane] Castor spoke in Washington in front of President Barack Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing.
She emphasized the importance of building trust in high crime neighborhoods.
“Every encounter with an officer is an opportunity to build a positive partnership in the community. It creates trust that must be the foundation of our relationship with our citizens,” she said.
I’m sure this all is doing wonders building trust in the community.