Behind the Blue Wall With Officer X

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

Photo: Andrew Hinderaker

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.

How?
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.

  • J

    I have a few questions for Officer X:

    My main interaction with cops is when I’m walking and I’m on my bike and there is a cop car either parked on the sidewalk near a precinct or parked directly in the bike lane. This seems incredibly illegal, arrogant, and disrespectful behavior, and it makes me really hate the cops who do this and also makes me not want to respect the law either. I understand that there are emergency situations where this is necessary, but sidewalk parking near precincts is egregious, and most times I’ve seen cops park in bike lanes they were just sitting there in the car or walking into a store to buy food. What I would like to know is if there is any way to curb this type of arrogance? Is there any move to regulate this behavior? It gives cops a terrible reputation.http://bit.ly/nOIp5vWhen bicycles get hit by cars, why do officers seem so dismissive? The article in the Villager and the plethora of “no criminality suspected” incidents documented here make it seem that drivers are presumed to never be at fault when they hit bikes and pedestrians. What goes on when an officer confronts a collision like that?http://www.villagevoice.com/2011-08-17/news/michelle-matson-greenpoint-brooklyn-bicycle-accident/Also, other cities, such as LA, have special police units that work with the bicycle community to make conditions safer for cyclists. Is there any chance of getting something like that here?http://www.lapdonline.org/special_operations_support_division/content_basic_view/1030

  • I. Saffron

    Wow it is amazing, but not surprising, to hear that most NYPD officers assume that every cyclist is a part of Critical Mass. It is a strange leap of logic to assume criminality of cyclists or Critical Mass because one of their own made a dumb mistake in July 2008 (NOT 2007!).

    FYI Critical Mass is mostly attended by tourists these last few years. NYPD still wastes enormous resources to follow what is typically less than dozen or so bicyclists. You often have a 2:1 Cop to cyclist ratio. It’s pretty funny that most NYPD officers are still sore over it.

    So I just gotta call BS on the assertion that the NYPD, top to bottom, doesn’t have it out for cyclists. 1 Police Plaza has criminalized the legally ambiguous Critical Mass for 7 years, and this bias is the result.

    Cops are afraid to ride bikes on duty, and Ray Kelly won’t let them anyhow. Officer X explains that getting the car duty is the goal for many officers…so they make up tickets targeting the most vulnerable and admittedly least dangerous cyclists.

    Wow.

    Officer X does give us some common sense safety advice for running reds. And props to TA for chipping at the Blue Wall of Silence (FINALLY). But if this cop/cyclist really wants to make a difference he should get on his bike for duty and advocate for other officers to do the same. He’ll safe the city millions of bucks, save numerous lives cylcist/pedestrian/motorist and probably make Police Commissioner someday.

    Decriminalize Critical Mass and you are gonna go a long way to fixing traffic and bicycle issues in NYC. Oh, a little training might help too.

  • Anonymous

    further confirmation that:
    Cops are lazy
    The main determinant of whether a cop writes a ticket is whether he has reached his quota (sorry “performance objective”)
    Cops will always choose to protect other cops instead of opposing actions that are illegal, foolish, or wrong.

    If we assume that officer X is one of the “good guys”, then this does a good job of debunking the myth that the NYPD is made up a a few bad apples and mostly good cops.  The problems are systemic.

  • I’m glad Officer X vindicated the “urban cyclocross” strategy of dismounting and walking (or trotting) through the intersection against a red.  Except when I’m wearing business attire, that’s my standard way of dealing with reds and I find it eliminates most of the unnecessary delays of bike commuting while allowing me to avoid tickets and “hold my head high.”

  • I appreciate the honesty but it really only confirms the anti-bike bias. Apparently the main thing preventing cops from acting on it is their own laziness. I guess faults can cancel each other out. Sometimes.

  • I appreciate the honesty but it really only confirms the anti-bike bias. Apparently the main thing preventing cops from acting on it is their own laziness. I guess faults can cancel each other out. Sometimes.

  • I appreciate the honesty but it really only confirms the anti-bike bias. Apparently the main thing preventing cops from acting on it is their own laziness. I guess faults can cancel each other out. Sometimes.

  • Anonymous

    I’ve been using the urban cyclocross strategy for a while based on the assumption that what the officer said in this article is true, but I seem to recall someone posting on here that they got a red-light ticket for walking through an intersection.  What about rights on red?  I’ve been dismounting, walking 5 feet to the perpendicular bike lane, and then riding away, but it starts to feel like a seriously ridiculous exercise.  Anyone been ticketed while turning?  I’m fairly certain that if you showed up in traffic court and testified that you were walking you would need concrete evidence to go against the PO who would surely say you were riding 30 mph and kicking puppies as you zoomed by.  I’ve been thinking about getting one of those little handlebar cameras, actually, just in case…

  • Anonymous

    I’ve been using the urban cyclocross strategy for a while based on the assumption that what the officer said in this article is true, but I seem to recall someone posting on here that they got a red-light ticket for walking through an intersection.  What about rights on red?  I’ve been dismounting, walking 5 feet to the perpendicular bike lane, and then riding away, but it starts to feel like a seriously ridiculous exercise.  Anyone been ticketed while turning?  I’m fairly certain that if you showed up in traffic court and testified that you were walking you would need concrete evidence to go against the PO who would surely say you were riding 30 mph and kicking puppies as you zoomed by.  I’ve been thinking about getting one of those little handlebar cameras, actually, just in case…

  • “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.”

    What? No. The NYPD’s deranged war on Critical Mass started during the 2004 RNC. I wasn’t cycling back then but that was the consensus on Streetsblog years later, and still long before that officer’s unprovoked violence was caught on YouTube. If anything, things improved after the police realized they may be held accountable for unproved violence.

    Maybe Officer X assumes that NYC history started when he joined the force 4 years ago. I don’t know, but it throws all of his observations into question when he goes out on a limb with such a strange, flimsy claim.

    After that he implies that police go after cyclists because they are less afraid of them than motorists, because as he puts it we are an “easier target”. What are we to make of that, except that police are out there looking for someone to pick on, and cyclists are easy to “stop” and “control”? I don’t think I want to read any more.

  • least work possible

    “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”

    Does this mean that once they’ve hit the quota, they are going to ignore
    everything and not write tickets? Writing tickets makes them black sheep and shunned by other officers. That does not sound very rewarding. And those wanting to fill their quotas will ticket anyone for minor infractions.

    Maybe the officer reading a newspaper his car parked on the bikelane is a symptom of this. He might fool around most of the day, then give a ticket or two random people just to fill the quota. Of course he would shun anyone doing his work properly.

  • Brooklyn

    I for one would like to thank the officer for sharing and for taking the time to write his thoughts.  Whether we are in full agreement or not, it is nice to have some dialog instead of a drumbeat of us vs them.

  • J

    Sadly, this is the state of dialogue we get with the NYPD: opacity and anonymity. An honest police force with nothing to hide should be willing to engage the community in an open dialogue. Sadly, NYPD has lots to hide (from laziness to corruption) and they fight every effort to make the agency more transparent. Even the LAPD, notorious in its own right, has a Bicycle Coordination Unit charged with maintaining a relationship with the bicycle community. There is a true point of contact where discussions like this occur in the open, not under a veil of anonymity.

    It’s no wonder NYPD has such a bad reputation. They won’t even have an honest discussion with anyone.

  • J

    “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.”
    What?? If another engineer did something completely illegal, that made me and all other engineers look bad, I would want him to be punished as much as possible and distanced as much from the profession as possible. Sure, I wouldn’t want it to have happened in the first place. However, I find it very disturbing that police officers so stubbornly protect their coworkers when they so flagrantly break the law. It makes the police seem to condone or at least tolerate such illegal actions, and that is unacceptable.

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