Does NYPD Know the Traffic Laws It’s Supposed to Enforce?

We linked to this Gothamist post in the headline stack this morning, and it’s worth pulling out the story of obliviousness from the NYPD bike crackdown. Air Force veteran David Curtis Lettier was obeying all traffic laws while biking to class yesterday, when he was pulled over and cited for an imaginary offense: not wearing a helmet.

Read on and ask whether NYPD’s stepped-up bike enforcement is at all helpful if officers don’t receive sufficient training before going out on cyclist patrol:

I was pulled over today at 127th and Lenox for not wearing a helmet by Officer Purdie of the NYPD. After explaining to him that I am above the age of 13 and I do not/have never/currently wasn’t using my bicycle for commercial purposes I was still given the ticket.

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When he pulled me over he asked where my helmet was. I said I didn’t need one by law but I offered to turn back and get the one in my apartment. He asked for my ID and motioned me to approach his passenger window. I gave him my military ID but he still asked for my driver’s license so I gave him that too. I showed him I complied with all state and local laws and that I didn’t see where in the law I needed a helmet. He told me to step away and that he’d double check with his sergeant. Instead, he sat in his unmarked car writing the ticket while talking out his driver side window with what I assume was his buddy. This random guy actually pulled over in front of the unmarked car, got out and struck up a conversation with Officer Purdie. The guy was in civilian clothes.

He motioned me back to the window and said he never heard that riders do not need helmets. He hands me the ticket while I ask what to do about this. Round and round we go until I offer to pull up the law on my phone. First I showed him the article from 2007 from your very own website about the helmet law. He wasn’t buying it and had the tone of “prove it.” Playing the lawyer, he wrote down my source as “Gothamist” in his ticket book and had me spell it out. It was then that I said forget that and pulled the law from the NYC.GOV website and had him read it.

His tone changed once again explaining he couldn’t take back the ticket as if it was written in stone handed down by the mayor himself. He repeatedly tried to get his sergeant on the phone as he kept fumbling with the blackberry each time removing the battery for some odd reason. Having read the law he now backtracked explaining he didn’t know if I was working or not. I explained there were only books in my book bag showing him my school ID. I had told him earlier that I was on my way to class which I was now late for.

In the courtroom of commonsense, if he did truly suspect that I was working, he could of pulled me over, asked if I was working, saw that I wasn’t, and went on his day. In reality he, I guess, truly believes all cyclists must wear helmets and thought he had his first catch of the day?seeing as though targeting law abiding cyclists was his only assignment for the morning. I was illegally detained, wrongly ticketed, and now must waste the City’s time proving there wasn’t any violation.

Streetsblog has a request in with NYPD’s public information office to see whether officers assigned to bike detail receive any training about how to enforce cycling infractions.

  • Josh

    Allow me to be the first person in the universe to say, you should wear a helmet.

  • Allow me to not be the first person in the universe to say people should only be charged with committing infractions that are actually on the books.

  • I knew that this thread would immediately start with a comment from someone saying, “wear a helmet.” While that’s a choice I make for myself when I ride, that’s not at all what this is about. Please! When we start arguing about helmets we lose sight of the bigger issue: the overreaching NYPD crackdown.

    The law is the law, and the law says adults do not have to wear a helmet. Period.

    Can you imagine the outrage if a driver was pulled over for listening to the radio loudly in his car? While we could debate the relative merits of driving so you can hear better, that’s not the point. It’s about the law. Drivers are free to listen to the radio. This is about an infringement of personal liberties on a law-abiding military veteran. If it was a simple mistake – the cop thought he was a delivery guy or 12 years old – then no one would begrudge a cop for saying, “Oops, my bad, run along now.” But that’s not what happened.

    If this thread will descend into a back and forth about helmet use anyway, allow me to add only this: I think an Air Force vet of all people should be allowed to make his own judgments about personal risk.

  • Marsha Kramer’s Eyebrow

    $50 says the cop’s next ticket was for the same no “helment” infraction.

  • PaulCJr

    I agree with Doug. If he doesn’t want to wear a helment, then that is his business. Fight the ticket and I hope you win.

  • Chris

    Similar thing happened to me a few months ago, I was riding the 9th Ave bike lane one Sunday evening, some bumbling NYPD cops tried to give me a ticket for not wearing a helmet, I explained that I am 38 years old and can make my own decisions. Nonetheless, they detained me for over half an hour while they read through something in their car which presumably has a list of bike violations, as they emerged a couple of times to make sure I had a rear reflector and a front light (I did). Finally, after wasting a ridiculous amount of my time (and taxpayer funds), I was let go, needless to say absolutely furious. One of them was named Officer Furrs, I can’t read the photo I took of the other guys badge because the flash on my camera whited it out.

  • Eric

    There are several steps towards handling this.
    1. Smile at the nice police officer and don’t argue. Telling them they don’t know the law won’t change anything.
    2. Go to court. Even if the officer shows the ticket is going to get thrown out.
    3. File a complaint with the precinct. –
    4. File a complaint with NYC DOT – Janice Sadik Kahn and the appropriate borough commisioner

  • fdr

    Filing a complaint with Janette (not Janice) Sadik-Khan about a police officer accomplishes nothing.

  • Eric

    It’s a transportation issue as well as a police issue. Her department is responsible for bicycle infrastructure and encouraging people to ride. It’s only an e-mail.

  • Chris

    Anyone have any good recommedations for helmet cams? I think I may well end up recording my rides for both legal reasons as well as posterity.

  • The Truth

    You should file a complaint with CCRB for an illegal stop, since they had no probable cause and unlawfully detained you.

    They might have been able to argue it was a simple error, had they not continued to detain you. Holding you there, and looking for other reasons unrelated to the original reason for stopping you, makes your incident a clear abuse of their authority.

  • Eric,

    Why do people keep insisting that JSK needs to do Ray Kelly’s job?

    I guess a city commissioner who actually does good things for the people and safety of NYC seems more likely to affect change then someone who apparently doesn’t know bikes from bombs.

    Helmet laws and the enforcement of them are certainly not related to street infrastructure, any more than a seatbelt laws are the arena of the road worker who lays the pavement.

    Is your last name Ulrich?

  • Joe R.

    We have a perfect storm of cops who don’t know the laws, combined with antiquated laws pertaining to bicycles. I can’t wait for someone to get a ticket for “bald tires”, for example, even though many bike tires have had no tread pattern for decades. Wheel reflectors? No need for those if your tires and/or rims have reflective sidewalls, which most do these days. Wheel reflectors cause severe rotational inbalance, enough that I wouldn’t use them if I was paid to. Bells? Please, are you kidding me? In NYC you won’t even get attention mounting a K5LA Amtrak horn on your bike, much less a puny bell. That law is straight out of the 1950s. Brakes that skid the rear wheel? Any cyclist worth their salt never uses the rear brake precisely because you slid the wheel before you’re doing any decelerating worth a rat’s behinds. And on and on. Seriously, the equipment and traffic laws pertaining to bikes are in need of a serious overhaul in New York State. We should do that first, then next have any cop assigned to bike duty spend a week learning the law.

  • Joe R.

    Oh, and why should it have taken cops a half hour to sort this all out? They should have been able to consult a law book in seconds, realize the ticket was unwarranted, and sent the cyclist on his way. I LOVE how with the police ( and courts ) your time is worthless. Get a ticket, then waste all day in court even if you don’t intend to fight it. Or waste a few days in court if you do. If police are going to give out tickets ( to anybody, not just cyclists ), have a system where if you don’t intend to fight it, you can just mail in payment. Requiring a court appearance is like adding insult to injury.

  • kevd

    Joe R.
    While I agree with you on most of your points.
    I find a silly little bell pretty useful on multi-use paths and bridges, and therefore worth the $12. Ped’s react to it much better than “on your left” or “heads up.”
    Not that it does anything for the herds stepping in front of you against the light

  • Joe R.


    You may be right but I personally never go on mixed use paths or bridges. In fact, the times/places I ride I hardly ever see pedestrians. That being said, I AM seriously thinking of mounting something as loud as the aforementioned K5LA Amtrak horn ( with the same tone ) on my bike just to arose the oblivious motorists I encounter out of their stupor.

  • Marty Barfowitz

    Civilian Complaint Review Board:

  • Eric


    Why do people keep insisting that JSK needs to do Ray Kelly’s job?

    I guess a city commissioner who actually does good things for the people and safety of NYC seems more likely to affect change then someone who apparently doesn’t know bikes from bombs.”

    I agree with you on this and would add that we may see better results if one commissioner talks to another.

  • fdr

    I just saw a promo for Channel 5’s Good Day New York, with Greg Kelly and Rosanna Scotto interviewing Scott Stringer. The sound bite had Kelly saying “The Bloomberg Administration is anti-car. They are jamming these bike lanes down our throats.” Greg Kelly is Ray Kelly’s son. Do you think they’ve had this conversation at family gatherings?

  • eLK

    I was stopped in the same area. It was 10AM. The cop said I didn’t have reflectors. I did. I also had lights in my bag for when it’s dark. I was not polite to the guy, and told him I’d be happy to put it in front of a Judge. He let me go.

  • eveostay

    Just saw this story tweeted by @nycpolicenews.

    Got me thinking about what a horrible law helmets for delivery cyclists is. Is a defense for that offense to just say “I was on my break”? It’s probably this law that “confused” the police in this case, and in general, it’s carte blanche to harass cyclists — how can someone prove they are not delivering something for money on their commute home?

  • Joe R.

    Honestly, if cops have time to give out petty tickets for nonsense like reflectors or bells or “helments”, it’s time to lay off some police. Maybe I’ll suggest this to Bloomberg now that he’s in budget-slashing mode. That’s the only way this will all stop-when there are barely enough police to fight more serious crimes like murder, rape, larceny, etc. You know, the kinds of things police are usually hired to deal with.

    And I agree, eveostay, that the helmet law for delivery cyclists is horrible. Putting aside for the moment that there is zero evidence using a helmet serves any safety function, the government has no right to tell adults they can’t make their own decisions about whether or not to use safety equipment. Now when you add in the fact that it’s dubious helmets are of much value at the speeds delivery cyclists zip along at, the law makes even less sense. At least if maybe the law had a solid basis in safety based on statistics, like the seat belt law, it would at least make a little sense to me ( although I still wouldn’t support it because I feel adults should be free to make their own choices ). This is totally a “feel good” law with no scientific basis which never should have been passed. I wonder if any helmet manufacturers sent campaign checks to City Council members?


NYPD Recommended a Mandatory Helmet Law in 2011

Three years ago, NYPD recommended a mandatory helmet law for all cyclists. While the proposal gained traction among some elected officials, it did not receive support from the Bloomberg administration. The de Blasio administration said yesterday that it won’t back a mandatory helmet law, either. While a helmet law isn’t on the agenda now, it’s a […]