Op-Ed: I Got ‘Harassment Ticketed’ as ‘Payback’ During the NYPD Blitz

As the blitz goes 'permanent,' watch out for cops who seem to have it out for cyclists.

An officer prepares to issue cyclist Alan Mukamal a ticket while parked in the the bike lane at the corner of Atlantic Avenue and Furman Street in Brooklyn. Photo: Alan Mukamal
An officer prepares to issue cyclist Alan Mukamal a ticket while parked in the the bike lane at the corner of Atlantic Avenue and Furman Street in Brooklyn. Photo: Alan Mukamal

The NYPD’s three-week ticket “blitz” earlier this month — Mayor de Blasio’s frantic response to the jump in road carnage this year — apparently ticked off at least one cop who had to carry it out.

Or so I found out after a cop “harassment ticketed” me during the blitz for imaginary cycling infractions  — after I encouraged him to issue summonses to cars blocking the bike lane on Old Fulton Street in Brooklyn.

It was only the latest of several times in 22 years of biking in the city that I have faced harassment by ticketing, even as there seems to be little enforcement against motorists executing dangerous moving violations that threaten the lives of cyclists and pedestrians.

It makes me think that many NYPD officers have it out for those of us who ride bikes — and give a pass to those who, like them, view life through a windshield. Cops’ car-culture attitude is a serious matter when 17 cyclists have died in vehicle violence so far this year, versus 10 all of last year. Total fatalities on city roads have risen 16 percent this year, too. It was galling to be harassed during the very period cops were supposed to be stepping up enforcement against the drivers threatening me! And didn’t the cops just vow to stop “nuisance” ticketing of cyclists? Hmm.

Author Alan Mukamal.
Author Alan Mukamal.

The mayor just announced that he is making the July 1-21 blitz permanent. So police behavior toward cyclists is more relevant than ever. Watch out for cops who seem to have it out for bikers!

Here’s what happened: I was biking on Old Fulton toward Furman Street on the evening of July 16 — part of my usual commute home — when I saw a cop talking to the driver of a car blocking the bike lane there. Passing them, I shouted angrily, “I hope you are ticketing them for blocking the bike lane!”

A little while later, I was surprised when I heard police sirens summoning me to stop after I made a perfectly legal left turn on a green light into Columbia Street. It turned out it was the same cop at whom I had shouted — he told me so as he ticketed me for two infractions that did not apply to my lawful behavior.

Then it dawned on me: The stop was payback for my shouting at him about the bike-lane blockers. He must have laid in wait looking to ticket me for something.

But I really should not have been surprised. Since 1997, I’ve gotten ticketed six times (including this one) while cycling the 16 miles to and from my home in Red Hook, Brooklyn, and my office at 52nd Street in Manhattan. During the same period, by comparison, I’ve incurred one ticket while driving (in an unfamiliar neighborhood in Washington, D.C.).

This truck is blowing through a red light in order to make a left turn from the right lane at Furman Street and Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn. Cyclist Alan Mukamal made this turn from the right of the signal pole on a green signal. Photo: Alan Mukamal
This truck is blowing through a red light in order to make a left turn from the right lane at Furman Street and Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn. Cyclist Alan Mukamal made this turn from the right of the signal pole on a green signal and was cited for two infractions. Photo: Alan Mukamal

And I’m no kamikaze! As a cyclist, I try to avoid interactions with police. I obey traffic rules, stop at red lights, ride on the street in the proper direction and always yield to pedestrians. I typically wear a helmet and use a bike bell and lights.

Yet I have been cited for infractions as different as riding on the sidewalk (when there were no pedestrians, in order to avoid a bumpy cobble-stone street) and carrying purchases on my handlebars. I’ve paid tickets three of those times. But nothing I have done as a cyclist has endangered anyone. Only one pedestrian has been killed by a cyclist over the past three years, while motorists killed hundreds of the same period, according to city data.

Moreover, I have seen many police stings targeting bicycle riders, especially along the First Avenue bike lane at 60th Street in Manhattan. Cops wait there during the morning rush, knowing they can show the outraged pedestrians who attend the police-community board meetings that they are cracking down on cycling “scofflaws.” (Meanwhile, cops never conduct a sting to nab drivers who routinely fail to yield to cyclists as they turn left from First Avenue to 61st Street — one of the most common vehicular offenses.)

Indeed, traffic enforcement against cars seems laggard. Not a day goes by on my commute (I’m in traffic 85 minutes a day) that some driver doesn’t do something illegal that endangers my life or the life of a pedestrian or cyclist around me — without penalty. Statistics bear out my impression of haphazard enforcement. This year to date, the NYPD had issued 131,320 summons for moving violations by the end of June — an 8-percent drop from the 142,993 they had issued by the end of June 2018.

Usually, I see multiple incidents, including:

  • failure to yield to through-cyclists when turning and crossing a bike lane,
  • failure to yield to pedestrians in the crosswalk,
  • running a red light,
  • blocking intersection and/or bike lane because they could not make it during the light cycle,
  • stopped or parked in bike lane,
  • speeding,
  • passing too closely,
  • illegal turns,
  • backing up half a block (often at high speed) on a one-way street.

And where are the cops? In cases where I have hailed a cop after witnessing an egregious traffic violation, the story is always the same: “Nothing I can do. I need to see it.” Or they’re just indifferent. In one case, when I pointed to trucks blocking the bike lane in my neighborhood in Red Hook, the officer simply would not bother. “It’s an industrial area,” he shrugged.

Police officers are constantly making decisions about which laws they will enforce and which infractions they will ignore — or even, as I found out on July 16, which infractions they will make up.

I have a court date — next July — for allegedly failing to stop while entering a road and disobeying a traffic device while operating a bicycle.

I intend to fight.

Alan Mukamal lives in Red Hook. He headed Transportation Alternatives’ Brooklyn committee in the late 1990s.

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