NYPD Bike Enforcement Carries High Price in Communities of Color

Brownsville Bikes
Business at Brownsville Bikes suffered when NYPD started targeting sidewalk cycling on the block. Photo via Google Maps

Editor’s note: Stephen filed one last story before wrapping up his tenure at Streetsblog earlier this month. Here it is.

The New York Police Department hands out a lot of tickets to cyclists — in fact, for years the number of sidewalk cycling tickets outpaced the number of speeding tickets local precincts gave to drivers.

Bike tickets are not distributed evenly among the city’s population. A report published last year found that the neighborhoods where the most sidewalk cycling tickets are issued tend to be neighborhoods where most residents are black or Latino.

When those tickets are criminal violations that require a court appearance, the personal cost of the citation can quickly escalate. Ignoring the ticket can lead to a warrant, and appearing in court may require a full day away from work, causing lost wages.

Uriah Wickham, 58, bikes from Brownsville to work in Midtown. A few years ago, he was pulled over with other cyclists who briefly used the sidewalk on Sands Street to get around a construction zone. “I was given a summons to go to court. I had to take a day,” Wickham said. “The judge said to go home. But I did lose my day of pay.”

This type of ticketing can also have a ripple effect. Cleveland Smillie (a.k.a. Jah Hammed), 63, has owned Brownsville Bikes, the neighborhood’s only bike shop, for 30 years. A few years ago, he said, officers began cracking down on sidewalk cycling near his storefront. It decimated business, since people were worried they would get ticketed if they did anything even slightly wrong as they approached the store.

Kenneth Graham recently stopped at Brownsville Bikes to get a fender added to his bike. “I ride everywhere. I got it because I don’t want to take the bus. I’m tired of buying MetroCards,” said Graham, 30, who lives in Canarsie and started cycling a few months ago. A side benefit: He’s quickly dropped from 300 pounds to 255 pounds.

Graham hasn’t been stopped by police on his bike yet, but he came close recently. He was biking on a quiet walkway in Howard Houses — like most public housing projects, it’s a super-block without through streets — and quickly attracted the attention of police. “It seemed like they was chilling until they see my bike come through the walkway,” he said. “I just got off the bike, so they didn’t bother me.”

R. Charles Bryan, who regularly bikes between Cypress Hills, where he lives and works, and Harlem, where his mother lives, has a strategy to avoid police stops. He hasn’t changed his behavior on a bike, but he has changed what he wears.

A few years ago, Bryan was sitting on his bike while stopped on the sidewalk a few blocks from his mother’s home to talk with someone. Bryan, wearing a hoodie and sweatpants, wasn’t moving; his feet were on the ground.

That’s when a pair of officers came up from behind him and gave him a ticket for riding his bike on the sidewalk. Bryan says that’s just one of roughly two dozen times he was stopped for biking infractions in the course of about five years.

Another time, he biked to his father’s house in Flatbush, changed into sweatpants, and biked back on the same route an hour later. Police stopped him for riding outside the bike lane and told him he fit the description of a suspect on the loose. After he sat on the curb for 45 minutes, Bryan says, the officers let him go but changed their story, saying they only pulled him over because neighborhood residents were complaining about cyclists.

“They didn’t even give me a ticket,” Bryan said. He found he would get stopped by police most often not in lower-income areas like East New York, but in gentrifying neighborhoods like Harlem.

A couple of years ago, the pattern snapped into focus. “If I was biking and I was in a wife beater and shorts, I’d be more likely to be stopped, to be harassed, to be told I had run a red light,” Bryan said. “But if I was wearing spandex shorts and a biking jersey and a helmet, they’d tip their caps to me and say, ‘Keep going.'”

“I’m very, very aware of a uniform that I need to wear,” he said. “It’s really just the uniform of money.”

Bryan has suggested to his friends that they change what they wear while biking. Not all of them follow the advice, and some have chosen to blow off sidewalk biking tickets, reasoning that it’s not a serious offense. “Next thing you know, they have a bench warrant. It can be so detrimental for such a small issue,” Bryan said. “I don’t think that should be illegal. I definitely don’t think it’s something that should merit a bench warrant or anything of that nature.”

There is clearly bias at work in NYPD’s treatment of sidewalk biking and similar offenses. Many of the city’s political leaders agree with one of the avenues Bryan suggested to address the problem: They say sidewalk riding needs to be reclassified.

Earlier this year, the City Council began to look at decriminalizing minor offenses like sidewalk cycling, an idea Police Commissioner Bill Bratton later said was “crazy.”

Nevertheless, under Bratton NYPD has shifted the majority of sidewalk cycling tickets out of criminal court. Last year, the department began issuing most sidewalk riding tickets as moving violations. Other violations, however, including jaywalking, remain criminal infractions.

Last month, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, and civil rights attorney Norman Siegel released a report calling for the decriminalization of minor offenses like bicycling on the sidewalk, among other changes [PDF]. “Unpaid summons for bicycling on a sidewalk or drinking an open container of alcohol in public should not result in an arrest and a permanent criminal record,” they wrote.

Brewer, who was on the City Council when it criminalized sidewalk cycling that endangers person or property, is now effectively seeking to undo that vote, Crain’s reported.

“They don’t pay the fine, they end up with a warrant and someone comes knocking on the door,” Brewer told Crain’s. “That’s what we’re trying to avoid. We don’t want people to end up with records for the rest of their lives for little, little offenses.”

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