How NYPD Bike Enforcement Is Making Streets Less Safe

Considering what happened to longtime street safety advocate Hilda Cohen last Friday afternoon, you have to wonder how many “scofflaw cyclists” are in actuality the victims of police harassment. The incident is also another example of wasted NYPD resources that could be used to make streets safer.

Officers from the 6th Precinct putting cyclist lives at risk, and ticketing them for the privilege. Photo: Hilda Cohen

Cohen says she rode through a yellow light on Bleecker at Charles Street, and was about to ride around a car parked in the bike lane ahead when she was stopped by NYPD. The car was an unmarked police car.

Here’s what Cohen says happened next, as excerpted from her Facebook page:

I get stopped by the guy standing next to the car, NYPD in uniform.

“You just ran a red light.”

“The light was yellow when I went through the intersection.”

“No, it was red”, he said. “I saw it.”

“I am actually 100% positive that it was yellow. I looked for it, I saw it, and I don’t run red lights,” I said. “Why do you say it was red?”

“We saw the pedestrian crossing sign change from a flashing hand to a solid hand when you entered the intersection.” These police officers could not even see the light that they were referring to, they were about 30 feet past the intersection on a one way street. “That means that it was a red light.”

“Actually that proves that it was yellow. That is when the light changes from green to yellow.”

“Well you can’t go through yellow lights.”

To this I did say, “you’re not serious.”

“A yellow light means put on your brakes,” he continued, “and you can’t go through a yellow light. You must have been going too fast to stop in time. I’ll give you a ticket for running a yellow and speeding. The speed limit is 25 mph, you were going faster than that.”

[I]n as even a tone as I could muster [I] said, “you can enter the intersection when the light is yellow.”

“Then I’ll give you a ticket for being outside of the bike lane, and for speeding.”

I responded, “I could not stay in the bike lane as you are parked in the bike lane, and the speed limit is 30, and there is no way I was going 30 mph.”

“Lady, you just don’t shut up do you!”

Cohen was cited for reckless operation of a bicycle and obstructing vehicle traffic. The latter is a disorderly conduct charge. Reckless operation of a bicycle is the third most common criminal summons issued by NYPD.

“These are criminal offenses, and I have to show up to court whether I plead guilty or not,” writes Cohen. “I was stopped for running a yellow light, and then given two tickets for knowing my rights, and the law.”

For perspective’s sake: At least two pedestrians were killed by motorists in the 6th Precinct within the last 14 months. One was killed by a trucker in an oversized rig, and one was struck by a cab driver who was reportedly speeding.

At last year’s City Council hearing on traffic safety and NYPD crash investigations, department brass said that in 2011, police issued roughly the same number of moving violations, and three times as many criminal court summonses, to cyclists as to truck drivers.

As of June, the 6th Precinct had written 30 speeding tickets this year, and precinct officers ticketed 21 motorists for speeding in 2012.

Entrapment and harassment aside, parking in a bike lane is illegal, and it’s illegal because it forces cyclists to veer into traffic. The 6th Precinct is not only ignoring motorist behavior that puts lives at risk, they’re engaging in it.

To tell Deputy Inspector Elisa Cokkinos, the commanding officer, what you think of the 6th Precinct’s approach to traffic enforcement, go to the next precinct community council meeting. The 6th Precinct council meets at 7:30 p.m. on the last Wednesday of the month at 25 Carmine Street. Information on the council’s summer schedule was not immediately available, but reader KeNYC2030 says the next meeting isn’t until September. Call 212-741-4826 for information.

  • Anonymous

    I got one of those criminal summons for the exact same charges, which is a misdemeanor ‘disorderly conduct’ and stays on your criminal record. Like Hilda’s story, mine was equally similar and unjust. I pled not guilty and had to return again for another hearing the following month. The police did not show up and the case was dropped. It cost me nearly 2 days off of work. I’m sorry to see things look like they have gotten worse. I now live in a place with far less unnecessary police harassment.

  • Anxiously Awaiting Bikeshare

    Hilda didn’t even complain about is that the flashing hand goes to solid at the same moment the light turns yellow (not red), so the cop was even more wrong than Hilda thought.

    Stories like this remind us why we have a justice system that is separate from the police system. Gives people two chances for the right outcome rather than one. I look forward to the follow-up article after the judge quickly dismisses these charges.

  • Mark Walker

    If braking for yellow lights is to become the new gold standard in traffic enforcement, let’s make it apply to cars as well, and let’s automate enforcement with cameras placed at every intersection in the city. The result would be tens or hundreds of thousands of tickets a day. The city could then balance its budget, improve the schools, stop closing firehouses, make every street a complete street, and (because we are a magnanimous city) give every employee of the NYPD a raise.

  • Bill de Blasio, the nominal Public Advocate, is totally absent on this and just about any issue related to the prevention of traffic violence, no matter one’s mode of transportation.

    You’d think a man who has very little chance of becoming our next mayor could use his bully pulpit to save the lives of New York City residents.

    But he did have time to meet with the members of NBBL a while back, so there’s that.

  • Anonymous

    In that fantasy scenario, there would also be an increased number of rear-end crashes as drivers frantically tried to break as soon as the light turned yellow.

    That’s why it’s legal to “run” the yellow light and this cop is completely wrong. The very purpose of the yellow light is to provide a transition period during which drivers can decide to stop when safe to do so before the stop line, or proceed when it’s too late to stop.

  • Anonymous

    Don’t be so sure. Unless you want to hire a lawyer, the judge will almost always side with the police officer’s rather than someone like Hilda word in most cases. The real way this gets dismissed is if the police do not show up for the hearing, which they probably won’t.

  • Anonymous

    > can a car driver get a disorderly conduct for rolling a stop sign?

    He probably can if he argues with the cop sufficiently. “Contempt of cop” charges are hardly reserved for cyclists.

    (Not that I’m saying that the cyclist did anything wrong here, just that this sort of thing doesn’t only happen to cyclists.)

  • Anonymous

    You are missing my point. In my case, I was riding legally in the right lane with a friend and was suddenly stopped by an officer who said I was ‘obstructing traffic’. It does not matter how cooperative you are, the charge of the offense is ‘Disorderly Conduct – Obstructing Vehicular Traffic’. The charge is intended for street protests or other intentional roadway disruption, certainly not riding in the proper direction of traffic on a bicycle. So it’s not that I was acting ‘disorderly’ after initially pulled over, it’s the intial charge of obstructing traffic is a disorderly conduct misdemeanor.

  • Yohannes

    No way. The wheels of the American justice system are creaky and inefficient, not quite the idealized paragon of efficiency most people lucky enough not to encounter the bad side of a cop have in mind. First of all, innocent or not, the cost of a ticket is usually less than the lost productivity from having to show up to court at least two times–once for arraignment, and multiple times for the trial. Each time you have to take pretty much the full day off because your court appointment time is approximate, and showing up late will get you a contempt charge. In most cases it’s cheaper to take a plea and pay a fine. And as a public defender told me many years ago when I was faced with a ‘disorderly conduct’ charge for peacefully disagreeing with a police officer who was bullying a street preacher, the judge always sides with ‘his boys’ (the cops) in he-said/she-said situations.

    The moral of the story is NEVER to argue with a cop and NEVER point out the particulars of the law (as you understand it) to a cop, despite whatever constitutional or legal rights you may think you have. Stay silent and friendly, and hope for the best possible outcome. It sucks, but until our society actually gets serious about policing the police, they will have huge leeway to make your life miserable for ‘disrespecting’ them.

  • tyler

    And how does the need for ‘policing the police’ become known if everyone just grins-and-bears-it?!

  • tyler

    And I don’t think judges will always side with the police…. there are many judges in the system that are becoming extremely tired of their docket being packed with absurd cases that are clearly police harassment and a waste of the court’s time (drinking on stoops, after hours in parks, etc.)

  • Redorblack Nigelbottom

    Beautiful… claims she was obstructing traffic AND speeding…. the stupid is strong in this one. Along with obstructing traffic when supposedly she ran a red… or yellow light. If she had done that how could she be obstructing traffic unless they ran the light right behind her? I think she should write a ticket to the officer for obstructing traffic as he parked in the bike lane. That also strikes me as reckless endangerment as it forces cyclists out into traffic… doh!

  • Anthony Townsend

    its clear that the NYPD is being hyper-aggressive in the West Village, where there’s been lots of opposition by owners of residential property about station placement. someone obviously called the mayor, who kicked Ray Kelly, who kicked the precinct commander, who, you guessed it… is kicking us!

    p.s. i also got a red light ticket on CB a block away from this incident. cop was insanely intimidating.

  • Anonymous

    I’d be curious to know how many – if any – tickets have been issued to cars parked in bike lanes. I was stopped by a polite cop on First recently (but let go with a warning), and asked him why nothing was being done about the three vehicles clearly visible in the bike lane in the stretch of a few blocks north of us, which, as I pointed out, were obviously creating a dangerous condition for cyclists. “We’re trying to do that, too,” he replied, but I’ve yet to see a single instance of that happening.

  • M to the I

    I work in Midtown by 3rd Avenue and 39th Street. I always wondered why only pedestrian protesters get tickets for obstructing traffic when drivers block crosswalks and block the entire box all the time, obstructing pedestrians and other drivers. They should get pepper sprayed and taken to jail too.

  • Joe R.

    This is a perfect example of why every cyclist riding in areas with heavy police enforcement against bikes should have a camera. The video footage would settle the issue once and for all. It’s perfectly legal to cross an intersection on a yellow light. So long as you enter the intersection while the light is still yellow, you’re in the clear. Lights are set up in such a way that cross traffic won’t get the green for a few seconds after the light flips from yellow to red.

    Hopefully now that there are more cyclists, we’ll eventually have enough political clout to have an Idaho stop law passed. To convince City Councl members why we need this, I would invite them along for a 20 mile bike ride where they have to stop at every red light. Once they see how slow, inefficient, and wasteful of energy it is, they’ll favor a change in the law. My guess is the vast majority on such a ride will bonk after only a few miles.

    I won’t be riding in Manhattan any time soon, either. Between the police enforcement, traffic, and fumes it seems like hell on Earth for cyclists.

  • Joe R.

    I was just thinking of something else here. Ever since I received a sidewalk cycling ticket back in 1999 (the only ticket I’ve ever gotten on a bike), I’ve been hypervigilent of police. Now I routine look for police, including behind me, whenever I pass red lights. In fact, I look for police all the time. I generally turn off the road if I see one regardless of whether I’m doing something technically illegal or not. This might not be a bad idea for Manhattan cyclists. It’ll take you longer to reach your destination, but you avoid being pulled over on bogus charges.

  • Anonymous

    There are so many cops in many parts of Manhattan that it would be tough to get anywhere if you turn off the road every time you see one.

  • Joe R.

    You’re probably right here, which is why I would never ride in Manhattan until we end this stupidity. Incidentally, when I received my ticket in 1999, I wrote to a bunch of politicians, including the Mayor and John Liu. One of the concerns I mentioned about aggressive police enforcement of cyclists is the fact that sooner or later, you’ll have a cop accidentally shooting someone after stopping them for something minor like sidewalk cycling. That concern still remains. I’m surprised it hasn’t happened yet, but that’s what I think it will take to end this nonsense once and for all. The minute it happens, my copies of those letters are going to all the news media. I’ll be asking why my concerns from 14 years ago weren’t taken seriously.

  • StevF

    Be afraid.
    Be very afraid.

    That’s what they want, to have us too scared or disgusted to ride our bikes.

  • Joe R.

    It’s not fear, it’s self-preservation. I don’t have to waste time in court over nonsense charges. And I don’t want to risk getting shot by trigger-happy NYPD, either.

    By avoiding police, we’re increasing the “cost” of ticketing cyclists. Remember these cyclist dragnets are probably immensely profitable because cyclists roll right into the trap. If cyclists purposely avoided police, after a while the police might figure they’re wasting their time. They could honestly tell the citizens complaining about bikes that they’re just not seeing any cyclists breaking laws.

    There are other ways of course to increase the cost of ticketing cyclists. That includes going through with every appeal you’re legally entitled to if found guilty.

  • SteveF

    And Ray Kelly is being nominated to head Homeland Security?

    A fish rots from the head. Kelly heads the NYPD.

  • Anonymouse

    I do this too, but I suspect it actually makes me less safe because there is less attention for things that might kill you (vs just ticket you).

  • Joe R.

    And that’s exactly one of the things the NYPD needs to be made aware of. If I’m looking for police, that’s less attention focused on other things. If the police are truly concerned about cycling safety, then I should be able to ride safe in the knowledge that if I’m not doing anything overtly reckless, I won’t be getting a ticket. That includes passing red lights with no cross traffic. Any cyclist already has enough to do without also needing to look in all directions for police on the fear the police will pull them over for bs charges, like riding outside the bike lane, or not having a bell. If motorists were harassed like this over nonsense, they would be crashing into each other left and right because their attention would be diverted looking for police.

  • Joe R.

    I hope he gets the job, too. It’s a better fit for him than head of the police department in the country’s largest city. Hopefully he’ll be replaced by someone with a little more common sense.

  • SteveF

    Be prepared for police perjury in court. Commonly called”testilying”. A transcript of the hearing/trial will cost about $50, but this is refunded if you overturn even one of the charges on appeal. But it’s possible to get the primary charge – running a red – dismissed, yet have charges related to disobeying the officer – asking him questions – upheld.

    In practice, you can be found guilty of disobeying an ILLEGAL order. Really. About half the judges go along with this.

  • Joe R.

    The cop actually said the speed limit is 25 mph? Seriously? It’s frightening when the police don’t even know the laws they’re supposed to enforce.

  • Anonymous

    That’s probably the speed limit on the residential street in the suburb where he lives.

  • Anonymous

    I’ve seen drivers get tickets for “blocking the box” before. That’s the very definition of obstructing traffic. Are they getting charged criminally? If not, that’s a huge double-standard.

  • Ian Turner

    This. From a tactical perspective, arguing with a police officer is the worst thing to do. The best thing to do is to negotiate, ideally getting the ticket written for something which is not illegal (like riding without a helmet) so that it can be dismissed with minimal hassle.

  • Anonymous

    CB? What street?

  • Anonymous

    You know it’s pretty bad when even the White folk fear the police.

  • Andrew

    You’ve seen drivers get tickets for blocking the box? I’m impressed!

  • Anonymous

    Cohen needs to get the name and badge number of the scofflaw “cop” who was parked on a sidewalk and in a bike lane. That “cop” needs to be criminally charged by the DA’s office, for obstructing vehicle traffic, for harassment, and for deprivation of rights under color of law. Among other things.

    These fake cops need to go to prison. Either the DA starts prosecuting them, or a grand jury starts prosecuting them, or vigilantes will have to start taking them out. We cannot have a society where people in police uniforms break the law with impunity.

    This is not going to stop until the crooked cops start going to prison for breaking the law.

  • Anonymous

    We need to find a way to get the criminal in the police uniform prosecuted for parking in the bike lane.

    Criminal “cops” need to be in prison.

  • Anonymous

    Cops in NY need to lose their gun permits.

  • Anonymous

    Which is why in pretty much every other country there’s another warning before the light turns yellow – the green light blinks a few times.

    Here I see cars running the red daily, sometimes about a full second after the light already turns red – you can’t argue that you were going on yellow in that case. I have never seen someone get a ticket for doing that in the city, even with cops at the intersection.

  • Anthony Townsend

    CB=CitiBike. Bleecker and Christopher

  • Joe R.

    There seems to be a unwritten “grace” period of a few seconds after a light goes red before police will even *think* of ticketing a motorist for running a red. Other drivers are aware of this in that they’ll often wait a second or two after a light changes to green before moving in case there are any stragglers.

  • Joe R.

    Here’s a good but lengthy read about another case of police harassing cyclists:

    http://www.bicycling.com/news/advocacy/when-cop-says-stop

  • Ian Turner

    Not to put too fine a point on it, but motorists do crash into each other left and right.

  • Ian Turner

    This was recently downgraded from a traffic infraction to a parking violation, mainly so that it could be enforced by traffic enforcement (who are not police officers and cannot, ironically, enforce traffic infractions). Most likely the people you saw writing tickets were traffic enforcement, not police officers.

  • Not sure we read the same story.

    In this one, Cohen catches the cop in multiple gross misunderstandings of the law, forcing him to change his story (and charge) each time. A red light ticket is hundreds of dollars and nothing to sneeze at. Now she has a different set of charges which are self-evidently fraudulent and documented here. There is a decent chance of justice prevailing. Either way, she would have had to go to court one or more times.

    I appreciate that Cohen did the right thing as a citizen, educated the brutes and stood up to their abuse of power. For goodness sake, we pay these people’s salaries and we elect their bosses! *They* have no right to disrespect us, to be so ignorant of the laws they are charged with enforcing. If all of us responded as Cohen did, the police wouldn’t be so quick to laugh in one of our faces.

  • Lisa

    I just spent a week in NYC and noticed all the posters with the woman on her bike looking like she was some sort of maniac and the slogan reading, “Share the road.” It took me a time or two to realize that they are talking to cyclists in these posters. Are you kidding me? Cyclists need to share the road? We will get right on that in between dodging the idiot drivers who think we are as disposable as a dog crossing the street.

  • Joe R.

    I also commend Cohen for doing the right thing here, even if it may cost her time (and possibly money). Things like this need to stop. It’s not like cyclists already don’t have enough things to worry about without also having to worry about blatant police harassment. The more we stand up to this sort of thing, and call the bad cops out, the sooner it will end.

    And if Streetsblog wants to set up a defense fund for Cohen, I’ll be happy to donate something even though I’m nearly flat broke. She’s doing all of us a service here.

  • Ian Turner

    Nathan, I seriously doubt that Cohen will prevail in changing the justice system at all through her actions. She has no documentation to back up her story, and even if successful in defeating the charges will have to give up several days of productivity/income in order to do so. Even if she were making minimum wage, a red light ticket would be a lesser financial penalty that a successful defense of the charges she now faces.

    I appreciate that she is standing on the side of justice, and I agree that in an ethical sense it is the “right thing” to broadcast injustice and fight false charges. As I mentioned below however, from a tactical perspective I very much doubt, whatever the outcome of this case, that her efforts will have much of an impact, if any. Things might be different if she had objective evidence.

  • Joe R.

    She has already accomplished something by adding yet another story to NYPD’s sordid history of harassing cyclists. At some point, there will be too many such stories to ignore. Or as they like to say in the military-once is chance, twice is coincidence, three times is enemy action. It will take many more than three times, but sooner or later even our brain-dead politicians are going to notice something stinks here.

  • Frank Dell

    The worst thing you can say to a cop is “I know my rights.”

  • carma

    this is what i fear more now. not being run over by idiotic drivers. but getting a ticket for possibly the most minor of offenses. i do admit to gunning a light a bit early from red to green just to get a head start of the other drivers for safety reasons. what if that 1 second jump yields me a ticket.

  • tyler

    I never pull into an intersection in this city immediately when the light turns green. That’s a sure fire way of getting crushed.

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