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Security Overkill Strikes Again

6:49 PM EDT on April 22, 2010

Maybe it was the NYPD's revenge for the disgracing of rookie cop (and detective's son) Patrick Pogan, now on trial for his brutal takedown two years ago of Critical Mass cyclist Christopher Long. Or perhaps it was just the latest manifestation of the post-9/11 security state, in which everything -- parked bikes, basic mobility, even human life -- is sacrificed on the altar of authorities' notion of safety.

I'm referring to the report from the blog This is FYF that earlier today police broke the locks on hundreds of bicycles parked along Houston Street and tossed the bikes onto flatbed trucks:

Citing security concerns that bikes might be secret pipe bombs, NYPD officers broke the locks of hundreds of bikes along Houston Street this morning in preparation for President Obama's speech at Cooper Union. The bikes were unceremoniously put in the back of the truck. There was no prior notification of the bikes needing to be cleared along the route by NYPD and onlookers were not given information as to what would become of the bikes.

holden_ghost_bike.jpgThe ghost bike in memory of Constance Holden. Photo: WashCycle

The New York City police department is no stranger to mass bike confiscation: In 2005, police blowtorched locks on bikes parked along Critical Mass routes as part of a long-running harassment campaign that included summonses and arrests of suspected participants. Today's action will probably be defended under a different and more universal rubric: security at all costs.

Earlier this month, security at all costs helped take the life of veteran journalist Constance Holden, who atop her bicycle got in the way of an 11,000-pound truck driven by a National Guardsman in the security detail for the Washington, DC Nuclear Security Summit. (Note the three uses of "security" in that sentence.) Holden, an experienced urban cyclist not known for flouting authority, had just left her office at Science magazine on her homeward 3.5-mile bike commute when the truck struck and crushed her.

Here in Gotham, confusion and anxiety still linger in the wake of the off-again, on-again trial of 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and four confederates. The security arrangements worked up by the NYPD would have included 2,000 interlocking metal barriers around Foley Square, access restrictions on 17 lane-miles of surrounding streets, helicopter surveillance, and rooftop sharpshooters.

nypd_blowtorch.jpgPolice cut a bicycle on a Critical Mass route in 2005. Photo: Time's Up

Three months ago I wrote a piece for a downtown weekly on the cost of the resulting gridlock, and how it could be offset by pulling free-parking placards from court officers, judges, assistant DAs, and assorted hangers-on. I omitted the lunacy of putting much of lower Manhattan in lockdown at a cost of more than $15 million a month for "protection" that by any rational standard is overkill -- especially when thousands of teachers, sanitation workers and, yes, cops are on the budgetary chopping block.

We'll likely never know how, and at what level, the decision was made today to clip the bikes parked on Houston Street. Was there a pre-existing policy to remove all bicycles, no matter how spindly, from the route of a presidential motorcade? If so, was no thought given to posting no-parking signs and alerting cyclists via social media? Were alternative measures considered, such as use of bomb-sniffing dogs or explosives experts? Did someone report a “tip” about a bicycle bomb? If so, how thoroughly was it checked out?

These are the kinds of questions our City Council and Public Advocate should be asking... just as they should have, but didn't, ask police officials questions about the Critical Mass bike confiscations and the countermeasures planned for the KSM trial. Those disappeared bicycles belong to hundreds of New Yorkers who count on them to get to jobs, to schools, and to loved ones. Who will explain “security” to them? Who will be held to account to ensure that this inhumane practice isn't repeated?

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