Cops Who Confiscated Bikes Carried Out ‘Racist Policy’ — And Don’t Even Know the Law They Cited

An NYPD lieutenant tells kids why some of them got tickets for not having bells. Photo: Terry Barentsen via YouTube.
An NYPD lieutenant tells kids why some of them got tickets for not having bells. Photo: Terry Barentsen via YouTube.

The cops who confiscated bikes and harassed kids for not having bells were carrying out “misplaced priorities and racist policies” of the de Blasio administration — and, worse, didn’t even follow the law when they did it, advocates said in a second day of criticism of Saturday’s mass NYPD operation.

Transportation Alternatives’ Co-Deputy Director Marco Conner led the charge on Tuesday, issuing a strong statement that called Saturday’s coordinated harassment of cyclists of color in Tompkins Square Park and Union Square “just the latest example of Mayor de Blasio permitting and directing the NYPD to harass to cyclists of color. It’s a nouveau-Broken Windows style of policing under the guise of Vision Zero.”

“If Mayor de Blasio is committed to Vision Zero, as well as the idea that New York is a true sanctuary city and ‘the fairest big city in America,’ the harassment of cyclists of color, and the NYPD’s failure to employ data-driven enforcement, has to end immediately,” he said. “Enabling a racist policy is inexcusable.”

De Blasio had said on Monday that he did not know about the dozens of cops who swarmed Tompkins Square on Saturday, where riders were gathering for the sixth annual “Race and Bake” bike event. Before the event, cops arrested the race’s organizer, Shardy Nieves, on a four-year-old open container warrant that was immediately dismissed by a Bronx judge. The cops had shown Nieves pages from his social media account, and indicated that they had stalked him to the event. While there, cops also decided to confiscate kids’ bikes for not having bells on them. Officers later did the same thing at Union Square.

The policy was not only questionable, but it was wrong, said lawyer Steve Vaccaro. When their bikes were confiscated, the cyclists were merely sitting in the park — not riding, as required in the state’s VTL 1236, which states, “No person shall operate a bicycle unless it is equipped with a bell or other device capable of giving a signal audible for a distance of at least 100 feet.”

“Operate” is the key word, said Vaccaro.

“It occurred on sidewalk, they weren’t riding, and my god it’s a bell. And they were offering to repair the violation apparently,” he said. “Cops don’t know anything about the law concerning cyclists.”

Participant Marc Nieves, who is not related to the event organizer, confirmed that cops confiscated bell-less bikes that were not being ridden.

“As soon as we got there [around 1 p.m.], we all sat on our bikes and the cops … told us they didn’t have bells so they were gonna give us summons,” said the 21-year old. “We didn’t get our bikes back to almost 6 p.m.”

The law is administered arbitrarily — in this case, cops swarmed the park under the impression that the ride was linked to marijuana use. In the end, cops only wrote tickets for a lack of bells, not drugs.

Bike advocate Courtney Williams saw the cops’ “no-bell prize” as pretext.

“It blows my mind and disheartens my soul that, especially in this era of an apparent rise in fascism, our own government chooses to sell us on the suppression of our right to assemble with bikes, work on bikes, or protest about fairness on bikes, by justifying a level of surveillance and seizure more fitting of drug kingpins or human traffickers,” said Williams, chief strategist of The Brown Bike Girl Bicycle Advocacy Consulting.

Cops have shown they can ignore something if and when they want to — their boss, hypocrite Commissioner O’Neill, has been spotted many times smiling atop his own bike with no bell in sight, Gothamist first reported. O’Neill often boasts of his cycling, but fails to criticize members of his rank and file who post insensitive tweets such as one earlier this year reminding drivers not to hit cyclists, “love ’em or hate ’em.” And he complies with the de Blasio administration crackdown on e-bike-riding delivery workers — even as the NYPD brass enjoy hot lunches because of them.

And neither de Blasio nor O’Neill has cracked down on reckless police drivers, which Streetsblog exposed in a monthlong investigation.

The targeted enforcement over the weekend was just the latest in a string of crackdowns against cyclists and a marginalized community. Under Mayor de Blasio, protection of cyclists by the city Department of Transportation and crackdowns against them have gone hand in hand. The mayor boasts of building scores of miles of protected bike lanes, but he is also engaged in a years-long enforcement effort against mostly immigrant bike-riding delivery workers who the mayor believes are unsafe, despite city statistics showing that they are not.

Police consistently focus on cyclists after a rider is killed or maimed in a crash with a driver. Over the winter, cops went on a ticket blitz against people who get around by bike after 72-year-old Chaim Joseph was struck and killed on Eighth Avenue near 45th Street in Manhattan on Feb. 4 — an officer days later issued a biker a summons for not wearing a helmet, which is not against the law. And another cop tackled a cyclist to stop him for riding outside a blocked bike lane — which later led to a massive rally outside the Midtown North stationhouse. Mayor de Blasio said he didn’t know about those incidents, as well.

Harassment of cyclists pre-dates de Blasio, of course. In 2004, the NYPD cracked down on a Critical Mass ride timed to the Republican National Convention. And in 2011, Streetsblog reported that the NYPD used so-called cheat sheets to assist officers in launching a bike ticketing blitz. But the document contained several bogus violations that don’t even apply in the city.

NYPD spokeswoman Detective Denise Moroney had said on Monday that officers were assigned to the park ahead of Nieves’s event, which police claim was “advertising smoking marijuana and traveling on New York City roadways to various locations.” The agency has declined to answer any questions since.

Mayor de Blasio did not take questions on Tuesday and has no public schedule on Wednesday. City Hall has not responded to a request for information or a response to TransAlt’s statement.

  • Joe R.

    The police confiscate bikes for all types of offenses, including sidewalk riding. Last I checked, cars aren’t confiscated when the driver commits a traffic violation, or has an equipment violation. Neither should bikes be. It’s yet another double standard by the NYPD.

    We need a Mayor who will get the police off our backs for good. A great start would be to change some laws which are currently “gotchas” for cyclists:

    1) Red lights and stop signs should be allowed to be treated as “yields”.
    2) Sidewalk riding should be legal unless posted otherwise. The primary areas where it should be illegal should be any street with a protected bike lane. You can also make it illegal in places with very busy sidewalks, like midtown Manhattan during working hours, as well as the “downtown” parts of the outer boroughs during peak times.
    3) There should be no bell requirement. It’s worthless from a public safety standpoint.
    4) No helmet requirement for either young children or commercial cyclists.
    5) Clarify that the bike lane laws are designed to keep everyone else out of bike lanes, not to keep cyclists in. A cyclist should be allowed to leave the bike lane for any reason they deem to be necessary. That includes but is not limited to avoiding hazards or vehicles.

    Remember the laws pertaining to the things above as they are currently written serve no real public safety purpose. I can understand laws requiring adequate brakes and lights at night, as well as riding in the direction of traffic. Those all serve a safety purpose. Requiring cyclists to wait the full cycle at empty intersections, or to come to complete stops at stop signs, doesn’t. Neither does any of the other stuff I mentioned. In the end changing the laws is the best way to end this ongoing harassment of cyclists. Back when I first started riding in the late 1970s, the cops pretty much never gave cyclists tickets for anything. It remained that way until halfway through Guiliani’s first term. The sky didn’t fall. Cyclists have a vested self-interest not to hit pedestrians or motor vehicles.

  • Larry Littlefield

    I’ll say it again — limit bicycle enforcement to police officers who are actually riding around on bicycles. Once they’ve done enough of it themselves, they won’t be in the mood to issue BS tickets.

    And if they have a souped up electric assist, them might actually be able to chase down and ticket bicyclists who actually to something dangerous.

  • Very sad look for an already disrespected NYPD.

  • Reader

    And an already disrespected mayor who can’t seem to get the cops to do anything that would actually make people safer.

  • AJ

    Excellent thought! While at it, also replace the dozen of police cars circling through Central Park for cops on bikes.

  • AJ

    Why would you want to mix pedestrians & cyclists (number 2)? That’s something that you should avoid at all costs. Get safer road design so that there is no need for cyclists to ride on the sidewalk.

  • Joe R.

    You’re generally right BUT I’m thinking of wide, fast outer borough arterials bordered by nearly empty sidewalks. Timid riders won’t ride on these streets but the sidewalks could function as a defacto protected bike lane. Since the sidewalks are hardly used, it would work OK in practice. Timid cyclists are generally slower. Faster, more experienced cyclists would still want to ride in the street. Shared paths generally function OK if the number of both cyclists and pedestrians is low. This would be the case in much of the outer boroughs. Once you have a lot of one, or the other, or both, then you need separation.

    Just get safer road design, so that cyclists can ride safely on the roads and they are not bothering pedestrians.

    That’s good in theory but by design there just isn’t space for bike lanes on many of these arterials. They’re often two narrow lanes in each direction with a fairly narrow parking lane. Getting rid of the parking lane in favor of a barrier-protected bike lane would work, but it would be a non-starter politically. I’ve suggested putting outer borough arterial bike lanes on viaducts, which would work great, except the cost would probably scare the city away. That would really be the best solution, namely total separation from motor vehicles and pedestrians, including at intersections.

    Another reason is cyclists often ride on the sidewalk for the last half block or whatever to their destination. This is a common thing for the police to give tickets for, even though they’re usually just coasting down and preparing to stop, not actually riding on the sidewalk for many blocks. It all comes down to giving the police less ammunition to use against us while not hurting public safety. Sidewalk riding is often legal in cities, except in crowded CBD areas. NYC should follow that model.

  • AJ

    Thanks for the explanation, I must admit that I’m not really familiar with the situation in the outer boroughs. My experience is limited to trying to ride back into the city from the direction of New Rochelle but that got difficult around the Hutchinson River Parkway.

    Getting the bike arteries raised is a utopia, the costs would be way too high. Wouldn’t it be possible to create main bike arteries on parallel roads to the main car arteries? For instance what has been done on Haven Avenue in Washington Heights. Bikers going south from GWB there are not following Fort Washington Ave (at least for a short stretch).

  • Joe R.

    Wouldn’t it be possible to create main bike arteries on parallel roads to the main car arteries?

    You’re probably not familiar with Queens but in many cases there are no real alternatives to the main car arteries. The secondary parallel roads often only go for a mile or two before ending in a park, cemetery, railway, highway, etc. That means any cyclist trying to use them will have a longer, meandering trip with many confusing turns. As an example, look at the situation by me. If I’m going from my place out past city limits I have only a few potential routes, depending upon how far north or south I’m going. Those would be Northern Blvd, the LIE service road, Union Turnpike, Hillside Avenue, or Jamaica Avenue. 73rd Avenue is good for some trips, but it ends at 233rd Street. Everything else only goes for maybe a mile or two. Just look at the map:,+New+York/@40.737413,-73.7981261,14.37z/data=!4m5!3m4!1s0x89c28a64bcdf88c3:0x47a42d644e94b187!8m2!3d40.7887673!4d-73.7055947

    The arterials are also generally faster, in that they’re not littered every block with stop signs like a lot of the side streets. They still have traffic signals unfortunately, but the spacing is generally every few blocks or more. The LIE service road has stretches with more than half a mile between signals. The problem obviously is none of these main arteries are suitable for anyone but fairly competent cyclists. Hence my suggestion of viaducts, probably above the median. We really should have tried that as a test case on Queens Blvd. We even could have hung the bike lane off the #7 viaduct on the last portion of Queens Blvd. before it reaches the Queensboro Bridge.

  • Eric Adams the Bklyn Borough President is the one mainstream NYC politician running for mayor who is both an ex-cop and doesn’t believe in harassing cyclists.

  • Everyone should bug the heck out of de Blasio on Brian Lehrer tomorrow AM. He cannot say “I’m not familiar with the situation yet.” Well, he could but if I get on I’ll call him a liar.

  • specialmonkey

    De Bozo is afraid of the popo.

  • specialmonkey

    But keep some cars just in case. A week or two ago I did see an officer on a bike patrolling over the Manhattan bridge from BK towards Chinatown, I think during the evening commute.

  • emjayay

    But you already live in Utopia.