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O’Neill: Cops Can Use Deadly Force Against Cyclists

10:47 PM EDT on July 8, 2019

Earlier this year, NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill appeared rattled when repeatedly questioned about an officer who used deadly force with his squad car to stop a cyclist (that’s his replacement, Dermot Shea, to the Commish’s left). Photo: Mayor’s Office

Police Commissioner James O’Neill testily took on reporters who grilled him about a cop who used his 3,000-pound SUV squad car to take down a cyclist who had allegedly run several red lights, even turning the question back onto reporters who asked why the top cop was equating the officer's use of deadly force with the bike rider's far less dangerous actions.

“So, is it OK for a cyclist to run a red light, continuously to run through red lights, endangering pedestrians, endangering themselves. Is it? I’m asking you," a clearly rattled O'Neill said after several reporters had asked about the Saturday incident on Avenue A, which resulted in the Citi Bike being jammed inside the squad car's rear wheel. "I bicycle every day. You have to act responsibly. That’s the point."

An NYPD officer rammed into a cyclist on Avenue A on Saturday. Photo: Rich Garvey
An NYPD officer rammed into a cyclist on Avenue A on Saturday. Photo: Rich Garvey

O’Neill said that officers have the discretion to use their 3,000-pound police vehicle to cut off an unprotected cyclist, even though it appears to violate the NYPD patrol guide, which states, "The primary duty of all members of the service is to protect human life, including the lives of individuals being placed in police custody.”

“NYPD officers have to use their best judgment,” O'Neill said. "It’s not always easy to make the best decision possible when the situations are ongoing. Like I said before, these are very difficult jobs. It’s up to the individual officer to make that decision. Do we want them to use force? No. We want cyclists to comply.”

In general, O’Neill downplayed Saturday's incident, part of which was captured on a video that has lit up Twitter. After cutting off the cyclist, the cop lectured the rider, saying that he needed to use “whatever means necessary” to stop the cyclist’s lawless behavior — "for your safety," he added.

O’Neill backed up his officer. “The bicycle operator blew through numerous red lights," the top cop said. “Bicyclists have to operate their bicyclists responsibly. Vehicle operators have to their vehicles responsibly. I understand that there is a difference between a 3,000 pound vehicle versus a 20- to 30-pound bike but there is an onus on everyone involved to operate whatever they’re driving and riding responsibly.”

Cyclists and their advocates have long decried this very equivalence, given that car and truck drivers killed and injured virtually every victim last year, yet the NYPD's latest ticket blitz — ordered up by Mayor de Blasio because of current rise in cyclists' deaths — continues the NYPD practice of not drawing a distinction between dangerous cars and far less dangerous cyclists.

As for the enforcement "blitz," NYPD Chief of Transportation Thomas Chan said the department had issued 2,160 parking summons citywide to vehicles blocking bike lanes, a 75-percent increase from the shockingly low numbers in that category. 

Chan also admitted that the city does not track how many city employees get tickets for parking illegally — or what happens to those tickets.

Like O’Neill, Chan stressed that cyclists have a responsibility as road-users. “As the Commissioner mentioned before... your choices matter. Our safety is really a … shared responsibility. Bicyclists are an active participant on the roadway. So it is important that they follow the rules and regulations, certainly traffic lights and things of that nature.”

Citi Bike and the Department of Transportation declined to comment. Last week, Citi Bike endorsed a cyclist "die-in" on Tuesday night in Washington Square Park organized by Transportation Alternatives to protest the rise in cyclist deaths. The bike share company threw explicit shade on city officials for failing to keep cyclists safe.

"Our riders depend on safe streets each and every day, and the sharp rise in cyclist deaths this year is heartbreaking," the company said on Twitter.

O'Neill said he supported cyclists' right to protest — because, he claimed, he shared their central goal.

"Listen, bottom line, I'm looking to keep cyclists safe," he said. "I don't want anybody to walk away from this press conference thinking that's not my primary concern. We've had 15 bicyclists killed so far this year. That's a concern to me personally, that's a concern to the NYPD."

But if you run a red light, that officer who is supposedly trying to keep you safe could suddenly use his squad car as a battering ram.

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