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Behind the Blue Wall With Officer X

This interview originally appeared in the summer issue of Transportation Alternatives' quarterly magazine, Reclaim.

There are approximately 34,500 uniformed cops in New York City. For a few months this spring, it seemed like the lion's share of them had it in for cyclists. T.A.'s switchboard was flooded with phone calls from members looking for legal advice, and our inbox was crammed with messages about summonses issued for red-light running or short stints of sidewalk cycling. There's not much we could say: Those acts, no matter how respectfully they're executed, are against the law, but others we started hearing about - including a citation for cycling with a tote bag hung from the handlebar and a stop for riding in a short skirt - seemed so patently absurd that the biking community was abuzz with theories of a concerted crackdown ordered from the top of One Police Plaza and an overtly anti-cyclist ethos at work.

According to Officer X, a four-year veteran of the NYPD and a regular bicyclist, that's just not the case, or not exactly. Although the precinct commanders certainly respond to orders from the top brass, and those trickle all the way down to officers walking a beat, New York's Finest never want to write dumb tickets - not even to cyclists. Still, every cop and every precinct needs to prove that they're working hard, and sometimes stopping a two-wheeler is the easiest evidence available. Officer X was good enough to give us that bit of insight and a whole lot more from behind the blue wall in this issue's sit-down interview.

Let's get right down to it: Do police officers hate cyclists?
No. But a lot of things have changed since the Critical Mass incident in 2007, when that rookie cop pushed a cyclist off his bike in Times Square. Now whenever an officer views a cyclist, he immediately associates them with Critical Mass riders and that incident. Even when I ride my bike to the precinct, I get that: “You riding Critical Mass? You one of them?”

As a cop, you don't want to see another officer go down like that, even if what he did is totally wrong, and that is going to open up your eyes. That young officer tried to do the right thing. Rather, he tried to do what he perceived as the right thing to control a situation. But he was wrong, and he got caught. He could have served time because he perjured himself. It's upsetting: upsetting on the side of cyclists - for me personally - and very much upsetting on the side of police officers. Incidents like this cause a black eye for our department, and we don't need anything else against us.

You say he tried to do the right thing, “to control the situation,” but the cop so obviously overreacted. What would have been the actual right thing?
You are never taught in the Police Academy how to deal with a cyclist. When you're doing car stops, you're taught to expect the worst, and in the field the worst can happen. Tactics are all about the hands: “Let me see your hands.” An officer approaching a cyclist, who can't really hide their hands, will see that as a safer stop; an easier target. Sure, they may fight, they may resist, but they are very rarely the ones carrying the guns or the major drugs.

You have to understand, when you stop a motor vehicle, there is a voice in the back of your mind: “Am I going to go home at the end of the day? What's the priority here? Them or me?” With a cyclist, that pressure isn't there in the same way.

We've got about 10,000 subscribers, many of whom are cyclists in New York City. As an officer, and a cyclist, is there anything you would like to tell them?
As a beat cop speaking to cyclists, I would say to follow the law so you have nothing to worry about. As a cyclist speaking to a beat cop, I'd say sometimes it makes more sense to look both ways and coast through a red light.

If a cyclist should ride to a light, see that no one is coming and proceed cautiously, why not? But from an officer's perspective, that is too messy. What if a vehicle comes out of nowhere? How long did the cyclist look to each side? Did they actually come to a complete stop? Was he rolling? It would be impossible to make something so subjective stick in court.

If you must, though, here's a way to safely blow a red light: ride up to it, look both ways, then get of your bike and walk through the intersection, then get back on. No self-respecting cop is going to write a jaywalker.

Has anything changed since the ticket-fixing scandal in the Bronx?
A lot has changed. Now, there is a foolproof way to distribute tickets. The blanks are scanned with a barcode, and they are given to an officer, and after he issues them to the person who committed the violation - the motorist or the cyclist - he then has to report it back himself, so there is no pooling of the tickets. That is the foolproof way this is going to operate from here on out, and it's going to change things.

In the next two to three weeks [late July/early August] you may see a sudden decline in the amount of summonses issued to everyone: cyclists, motorists, everybody.

Because of the situation in the Bronx, our Internal Affairs Bureau is now monitoring traffic tickets and moving violations. Under this new policy, if an officer loses in court - no matter how good your testimony is - you have to show your summons and your memo book to the Internal Affair Bureau. Any officer who has any kind of sense is not going to want to subject himself to that kind of scrutiny. Even if you've got nothing to hide, even if you're the best ticket writer with the most detailed memo book, you don't want Internal Affairs looking at you. They investigate serious acts of misconduct, bribery, excessive force, stuff that no one wants associated with the police department and no officer wants to associate with.

But because Internal Affairs is now monitoring our traffic court appearances, a lot of officers have stopped, or cut down on, issuing moving violations because they don't want to have unnecessary contact with Internal Affairs. That just came about two weeks ago. It'll be interesting to see, by the time this is published, what happens.

Have you ever seen or heard about beat cops being pressured into ticketing cyclists?
A lot of what's behind the scenes that normal people aren't aware of is the quantitative side of police work. The amount of activity an officer needs to bring in is a huge part of the job. In a certain light, summonses are a quantitative account of your monthly performance. They prove to your commanding officer that you've been working.

There are no “quotas.” The term is “performance objectives.” They can't use the word quotas, because it's illegal, so they come up with stuff that's similar.

In the same way that there are no “quotas,” there is no such thing as a “punishment” for not meeting your performance objective. But let's say you wanted to get a good assignment, like being in a sector car every day. You would come in with a certain amount of summonsing activity; if you didn't, you wouldn't get that sector car. You might even transport prisoners for a month or sit in the hospital looking after a sick prisoner.

So what's the standard performance objective?
The numbers vary, but usually, 10-20 summonses. Typically one or two criminal court summonses, a handful - maybe five – parking tickets, ten or so moving violations, and one arrest every month.

And the punishment?
That depends on what you want, but you don't want to be the person that comes in with the least activity. At least if there is someone below you, you are not the bottom of the barrel. One of the hardest things to do is motivate a cop, because he has a guaranteed biweekly paycheck. At the end of the day, officers don't want to be writing tickets. It depends on the officer, but most of them are lazy.

If you're a team player - meaning you stick with the same amount as your coworkers - you won't issue more summonses than anyone else. There are a few black sheep who do go above and beyond: try and prove their worth. Typically it's a new officer. They want to prove to their supervisor, “Hey, I'm very active. Forget about the guy with 15 years on. Give me the special detail, the regular days off, the weekends, the normal hours.” It's upsetting, not because I want everyone to be a team player, but because when I think of the officers who do issue all those tickets, it seems like they should not have been officers in the first place. They don't understand discretion and common sense. People have bad days. They are just like you at the end of the day. You are no better because you have a gun and a shield. For some cops, it's easy to forget that.

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