For the past decade, Tampa police have enforced a “stop and frisk” style policy that aggressively and disproportionately targets the city’s poor, black residents who ride bicycles, according to a Tampa Bay Times investigation published Friday.
Cyclists can be stopped and ticketed for having a missing tail light, baggy clothing, pedaling through a high-crime neighborhood or not having their hands on the handlebars, which is no longer illegal, according to the Times.
“It’s always the light, or to run your VIN number,” said 31-year-old Anthony Gilbert told the Times. “‘Let’s have your ID. Just stand in front of my cruiser.’ Now you’re being humiliated. Your friend’s riding by. Your reverend might be riding by. Now, you’ve got to go to church. The pastor’s going to be like, ‘What happened, son?’ ”
Of the 10,000 bicycle tickets issued by Tampa police in the past dozen years, the newspaper found that black cyclists received 79 percent of those citations, despite making up less than a quarter of the city’s population.
In the last three years alone, the Times reported, police have issued 2,504 bike tickets, which is more than Jacksonville, Miami, St. Petersburg and Orlando combined.
Police have stopped some riders, the paper reported, more than a dozen times and, at least one individual has been ticketed three times in a single day.
“If it’s not racial profiling, what is it?” Joyce Hamilton Henry, director of advocacy for ACLU of Florida, told the Times.
Critics might call it “biking while black,” but police, the paper reported, have another name for it: proactive policing.
“Instead of waiting to respond to 911 calls, officers now look for ways to initiate contact with potential lawbreakers and head off crime before it happens,” the Times wrote.
“This is not a coincidence,” said Police Chief Jane Castor told the Times. “Many individuals receiving bike citations are involved in criminal activity.”
And yet, the paper found, the vast majority of bike stops that resulted in a ticket found no illegal activity and “only 20 percent of adults ticketed last year were arrested.”
In 2007, the Times reported, police cracked down on bike riders during a mission they called “Bicycle Bliztkrieg.”
According to a department memo obtained by the Times, law enforcement’s goal was “to aggressively enforce bicycle infractions … where there has been increased criminal activity.”
The idea outlined in the memo, according to the Times, was that stopping people on bikes, especially after dark, would bring officers face-to-face with “potential criminals, thus opening more avenues to make arrests and clear the streets of the subjects that are committing the crimes.”
“You almost roll your eyes when you read the reports,” Circuit Judge Tracy Sheehan told the Times. “Oh no, another bike stop, another kid riding on the handlebars, here we go. And certainly, we have laws and we should all follow the law, but it occurred to me the stops were all occurring in certain neighborhoods and with certain children, and not in my neighborhood, and not with the white kids.”
The Times spoke to multiple lawful Tampa residents who have been harassed by officers for riding a bike, such as this one:
Then there was Alphonso Lee King, ordered to remove a bag of food and a lock from his bicycle so an officer could confiscate it “due to the fact the bicycle is worth over $500,” the officer wrote, “and King was not able to produce any type of documentation that he bought the bike legally.”
King said he and his brother, a scrapper, found the bike frame in a Dumpster and assembled it from parts. The bike was the only way he could get around after getting out of prison last summer for dealing drugs.
Tampa police impounded it for 90 days, advertising it as “found” property, even though it had not been reported stolen.
In recent years, the Times notes, police departments have been punished when proactive policing becomes discriminatory. In 2013, as U.S. District Court judge for the Southern District of New York, ruled that New York City’s “stop and frisk” policy violated the 14th Amendment’s promise of equal protection.
This year, after a prolonged investigation of the Ferguson Mo., police department, the U.S. Justice Department issued a report concluding that “nearly every aspect of Ferguson’s law enforcement system” impacted African Americans disproportionately.
Despite being one of the department’s “highest ticketing years,” bike crashes and bike thefts both increased significantly in 2013, according to the Times.
“We continue to believe that our enforcement practices have reduced crime in Tampa,” Castor told the Times.
But some local officials, like Circuit Judge Rex Barbas, are openly questioning the policy, according to the Times. Barbas told the Times he spent three years hearing juvenile cases and could remember a single white kid being issued a bike citation.
“We’d like to think we can all go about our lives without intrusion, without anybody looking in our pockets,” Judge Sheehan told the Times. “If we’re all going to take a hard approach on bike riding without lights, then let’s do it across the city and across the county.”