Security Overkill Strikes Again

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?

  • Speaking as a non-cyclist, and therefore a reasonably objective noncombatant observer, it looks to me like the NYPD has a screw loose. Either Kelly has really lost it or he’s abjectly failing to restrain some other higher-up who’s lost it. Either way, he’s sacrificing much of the good reputation he’s been earning since the Dinkins administration and the start of community policing. You don’t have to be a cyclist to see the manifest injustice of mass-vandalizing bike locks and stealing bikes. Since when has the city with the largest percentages of non-drivers in the country become a dictatorship of the motorist, by the motorist, for the motorist?

  • DingDong

    “We’ll likely never know how, and at what level, the decision was made today to clip the bikes parked on Houston Street”

    Streetsblog — this sounds like a great FOIL request.

  • Peter Flint

    Is it possible this came straight from the secret service? Which certainly doesn’t excuse it. And did they clip all the bike around Cooper Union too? Didn’t look like it when I rode past there this morning.

  • So the rogue dipshits rule the day once again. Seriously, WTF is wrong with these people?

    — Mark A. Delucchi (losing whatever equanimity I’ve had left).

  • BicyclesOnly

    There are constant film shoots in my neighborhood. NYPD puts up no parking notices several days before, and on the day of tows vehicles to a nearby block where the owners can claim them. I’ve been told that the towed cars are not fined. What a difference in treatment.

  • Mike Bloomberg, the Sybil of Livable Streets.

  • James Handley

    DC’s Nuclear Summit lockdown was grotesque. A wall of huge, ugly (dangerous) dump trucks wedged bumper-to bumper across streets blocks away from the Convention Center. Adjacent sidewalks, businesses and everything else cordoned off by by high metal barriers. When I cycled past, no signs even suggesting how to bypass the fortifications. Would even a few detour signs have saved cyclist Constance Holden from being crushed by one of those trucks?

    Would love to see an estimate of how many people have been killed, property damage, time lost waiting at security check points, tax dollars spent… in the name of “homeland security.” EPA and other federal agencies must show that proposed regulations to protect health and the environment cost less than their benefits. Is anyone considering the real cost (balanced against effectiveness) of “security” measures? Or ways to minimize their impacts?

    Surely we’ve inflicted enough collateral damage on ourselves (and our liberties) that by any measure, the terrorists have “won.” Anyone keeping score?

  • an experienced urban cyclist not known for flouting authority

    This is some really unnecessary and pointless editorializing. I love Streeetsblog but this sentence reads as though it was written by an overly zealous high school newspaper editor trying too hard to make a point. Her death was tragic and the result of a security state run amok, but there’s no reason to try and make claims that are totally impossible to prove about her previous, and irrelevant, non-cycling attitudes.

  • =v= From the photos I’ve seen sent around via twitter, etc., the bikes were being taken by regular police officers, who followed their normal practice of haphazardly tossing the bikes up onto the trucks. They wouldn’t be doing that if they were actually concerned that there were bombs inside the bike frames.

    What’s more, any sort of bomb that could be secreted inside a bicycle could much more easily be secreted inside one of those barricades.

  • Emilio S.

    Charlie – I for one believe the most recent bike-lock-clipping action by the NYPD was retaliatory. Don’t forget that just two weeks ago the City settled a lawsuit for retaliatory arrests conducted by NYPD Ltd. Corcoran in 2007, when he and his men and women from the NYPD’s 9th precinct arbitrarily and summarily clipped locks and took bicycles from an entire block on E 6th St without any prior warning. Two people who observed and filmed them were arrested. Absurdly, those civilians were the ones charged with disorderly conduct. But maybe it was just a coincidence that the street where they took the bikes today forms the boundary of the same 9th precinct.

  • I experienced the last 15 minutes of today’s blockage, pedaling east on 4th street to Bowery. Many of the cars that filled the street were idling.

    Why aren’t idling laws enforced? I asked the officer- just then the presidential motorcade passed and the question remains unanswered.

    Not enforcing idling laws (3 minutes. 1 minute by schools) throughout this city is a wasted opportunity to reduce air pollution and generate ticket income. Like No Smoking laws that protect bartenders, No Idling will protect the police and citizens.

    Idling is energy conservation low-hanging fruit, with immediate return on investment. There should be promotion as well as enforcement immediately, as a matter of environmental security.

    Thank you Charlie, this is an important topic.

  • Mad Park

    Whether retaliatory or just plain mean spirited, the goons throwing the bikes on the flatbed were ordered by SOMEONE to do this – that someone needs to be identified, indicted, tried and jailed.

  • Wow, I can’t keep track or update my blog, which focuses on the relationship of the NYPD to Critical Mass, with all this Pogan nonsense, and now this! The NYPD have begun their springtime assault against cyclists, first by treating a criminal trial of a former police officer as an opportunity to further the smear campaign against the ride and its participants, then uses an Obama visit to confiscate masses of bikes for dubious reasons. The stupidity in the ranks clearly has a cumulative and multiplying effect.

    Today in court, cop lawyer Stuart London had an NYPD Sargent agreeing that bycicles are weapons and that CM participants are “professional agitators.” Where the hell is my money then? Oh right, the cops are the ones being paid to “uphold” the constitution.

    Bloomburg: you are full of sh*t. Kelly: you suck at your job.

  • wow…I didn’t see the NYPD orchestrating any mass towing of cars parked around Cooper Union on Thursday, prior to Obama’s visit.
    I mean…hasn’t the NYPD ever heard of car bombs?

  • J

    They didn’t mass tow cars because they notified driver several days in advance to move their cars. With no such notice given to bikes, they just got screwed. Hold them accountable with FOIL requests. They’ll almost certainly be denied, but if you keep pushing, sooner or later a sympathetic judge will rule that not everything can be kept secret, especially regarding illegally confiscating property.

  • Compare this to the reaction when there actually once was evidence to cause concern in Ohio (Note: the student was actually awarded money for his bicycle.)

  • Ken Coughlin

    Thanks for writing this, Charlie. Where is the “mainstream” press on this outrage? If I were on the community board down there, I’d ask the local precinct’s community relations officer to to come to the next Transportation Committee meeting and explain the mass confiscation of private property in my district, and/or raise the issue at the CB’s District Service Cabinet meeting, and/or bring it up at the precinct’s next community council meeting (and make sure lots of cyclists attend).

  • MRN

    Two questions:

    1 – which exact block is this? Last I checked, Cooper Union wasn’t on Houston.
    2 – What happens to those bikes? Do people have to come claim them?
    3 – Did they only clip bikes that were locked to street signs and such?
    4 – Did they tow any parked cars in the same locations? If not, it’s blatantly clear that it’s not about security.

  • Brownstone

    Ray Kelly is scared of bicycle bombs.

    The first comment by Mark Walker asks the right question, does Ray Kelly have a screw loose. Yes, but there is a history behind that. Kelly served in Vietnam and that affects his opinion of bicycles.

    The Viet Cong were too poor to have cars to put car bombs into, so they used bicycle bombs. I was serving in Vietnam and yes, there was a small but real danger from bike bombs. Emphasis on small. In Saigon, you were in greater danger of being run down by a moped. Check out “Good Morning Vietnam” for the non combat side of that war.

    It seems that some of our security “experts” got their initial exposure during the Vietnam Error, and have not changed since.

    Eric McClure has Mike Bloomberg pegged perfectly, “the Sybil of Livable Streets.” One side of Mike empowers the DOT to “Do good things for bicycles” while Mike’s dark side sends Ray Kelly out to block all marches and protests, by foot or bicycle, and by default, run rampant against general bicycle use and safety. The cops on the street are following Kelly’s orders, and Kelly is following Bloomberg’s orders.

    They are “just following orders.”

  • “Pipe bombs”!! What a load of crap.

    To answer James Handley’s question (“Anyone keeping score?”) —

    The terrorists are clearly winning. But we long ago gave up the game to them, tossing away our civil liberties, trashing the constitution, and bankrupting our treasury fighting two simultaneous wars.

    I hope someone with first-hand experience with this illegal confiscation of private property comments here: did you get your bike back? Were you compensated for your lock? Any apology from the police?

    More importantly, we need to hear from the NYPD (is there even a ‘proper procedure’ for such an act?), and we need to know who ordered the bikes to be confiscated in the first place.

  • I’d thrown a 40 full of dino-juice at those tools on the picture from ’05

  • Jym Dyer, good point.

    If these cops really believed there might be a bicycle bomb on Houston Street then why wasn’t ESU contacted? Why wasn’t the Bomb Squad called in? And more importantly, why wasn’t the President’s motorcade diverted? Did these officers clear the area or do anything to insure anyone’s safety?

    Rather than spending all that time and effort cutting bike locks NYPD could’ve brought in bomb sniffing dogs to sweep the area. Then they could’ve included other suspicious objects like mail boxes, trash cans, etc.

  • Andrew

    just read on Gothamist that the bikes can be picked up at the 9th pct.

  • Thanks Andrew, but Gothamist says it’s the 7th Precinct, according to their moments-ago post which has a priceless photo with a trenchant caption.

  • Why don’t they start towing away parked cars? By the same logic, any car could be a car bomb.

  • Andy K

    “Security theater” is out of control in this country. This is a joke – I would think that this is also an illegal confiscation of property. Someone should pay for this.

  • Gothamist reports that they spoke to a police officer about the confiscation, who said:

    1. “[The NYPD] just did this because the president was coming and they didn’t want anything on the sidewalks.”

    2. “You’re not supposed to lock you bike to signposts anyway, they have those new bike racks you’re supposed to use.”

    Regarding point #1, there is so much to say that I don’t know what to say. Regarding poing #2, does anyone know if there are any of “those new bike racks that you are supposed to use” in the affected area? If so, presumably those bikes were left untouched?

  • God

    How could anybody say/think the terrorists have not won? Look at how we live our lives in this country. People do bad things and they always will! Our preventative measures will not stop a single one of them. Let’s get on with our lives and stop acting like everybody is trying to blow something up!! (even if they are)

  • I had hoped we left the Bush regime’s “culture of fear” behind when Obama took office; sadly, it’s still seems to be with us.

  • Paul

    I agree with #28. This country has lost it’s effing mind.

  • @Peter Flint: Yes, bikes were removed from bike racks surrounding Cooper Union.
    @nycbiker: Yes, the streets around the immediate area were devoid of any parked cars.

    From an internal notice:
    “All bikes must be removed from the racks located to the south of the
    Foundation building entrance by 6:00AM tomorrow. Bikes that have not been
    removed will be relocated by NYPD.”


NYPD Celebrates Earth Day With Massive Houston Street Bike Clipping

Photo: Anthony Rebholz/This is FYF Via Gothamist, local blog This is FYF posts this scene from Houston Street earlier today. Apparently, with President Obama due in town for a speech at Cooper Union, NYPD jumped at the chance to drastically overreact by confiscating New Yorkers’ personal property. We haven’t been able to confirm with the […]