The Thin Bike Line

An anonymous NYPD officer explains the enforcement of Vision Zero

Jessie Singer
Oct 11, 2018 · 14 min read
Photo by Konstantin Sergeyev

The New York Police Department is quiet about many of its internal policies and procedures, and the enforcement of Vision Zero is no exception. Without pronouncement or explanation, the number and type of traffic summonses issued by precincts has seesawed since Vision Zero began in 2014. Adjacent precincts often focus their enforcement resources in disparate directions — a jaywalking sting in one neighborhood, a tinted-window crackdown in the next. Limited policy clues appear on Twitter, where the NYPD is known to muddle the very definition of Vision Zero. Station house Twitter feeds often show off confiscated e-bikes or officers at local senior centers wrapping canes and walkers in reflective tape, all under the hashtag #VisionZero.

So, when Reclaim found a police officer willing to give us the real dish, we jumped at the opportunity to get some answers. The following interview was conducted with a New York City police officer nearing retirement who agreed to speak with us on condition of anonymity. Reclaim sought to understand the e-bike crackdown, the victim-blaming, and the all-too-common leaks of false information after deadly crashes.

What we got was a little different. The officer, who is also a recreational cyclist, describes a system of traffic enforcement that is data-blind, priority-confused, and at points incompetent. We were left wondering if police enforcement should be an element of Vision Zero at all.

In the weeks after this interview, which took place a month after a Republican-led New York State Senate forced New York City’s school-based speed camera program to lapse, we found some hope for the future of enforcement on the horizon. On August 27, 2018, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order giving the City of New York access to the Department of Motor Vehicle records they would need to turn the speed cameras back on, and led by Council Speaker Corey Johnson, the City Council passed a bill that allows the city’s Department of Transportation to install as many speed cameras as it wants. While much of what happens next is unknown, the speed enforcement cameras responsible for direct, tangible, and sizable reductions in speeding are back on.

The campaign that persuaded Governor Cuomo and Council Speaker Johnson, and which absorbed most of TransAlt advocates’ summer, was fierce and unrelenting. As you read the following pages, find hope in that citywide support for automated enforcement. TransAlt will fight for a new wave of cameras that can protect New Yorkers from speeding, yes, but also guard our bike lanes, our crosswalks, and our right of way. No matter how problematic the policies and procedures explained herein, cameras make room for less biased and more effective safety enforcement in the future.

Photo by Konstantin Sergeyev

What does Vision Zero look like in your precinct?

Still you can witness near-constant moving violations on any given street corner. Why do police officers not write more summonses?

Even the newest push for body cams absorbs time. Every stop that you make to issue a summons, you have to activate the body cam and then after the summons has been issued, deactivate the body cam. Then, at the end of the day, you have to download the body cam, and tag each video that you made with what it was for. So, if you’ve stopped five cars, you’ve created five videos that now have to be downloaded and then those five videos have to be tagged and categorized.

Every summons that you write requires also writing a memo book entry, filing the summons and memo book entry so that one to three years later you can actually locate the summons when the person fights it in traffic court. If you are writing dozens of summonses per month, you are now creating a filing nightmare for yourself, and a storage issue as to where you’re going to store all these summonses, because you’re not given file cabinets to store these things, you are given a locker. If you write all these summonses, you’ve got to put them somewhere and they have to be readily accessible for when you go to court.

Aside from all that, when there is a person in a vehicle and you have to write a summons to that person and get information from them, it’s very dangerous. People are combative, sometimes physically. I’ve responded a number of times to traffic agents who only write parking summonses who have been threatened or assaulted. Even for me, in full uniform with various weapons on my belt, I’ve had people get combative with me over traffic violations.

Tell me about taking those summonses to traffic court.

I was in traffic court one day and a cop was testifying on two summonses written to one vehicle. One summons was because the vehicle was not registered and the other was because the vehicle had a plate which belonged to an entirely different vehicle. The officer had a printout proving that the vehicle wasn’t registered, and a printout proving the plate belonged to another vehicle, and submitted those as evidence. The judge ruled one summons guilty and the other not guilty. You tell me, where’s the justice in that?

There was a time when the department was being very, very sensitive to officers losing in court. The shift has already occurred where that’s not the case anymore. But from my understanding, officers were threatened with losing vacation days because they may not have been prepared, come to court without a summons copy and their memo book with them, or their testimony was poor. There was a major push that you can’t miss traffic court, and traffic court takes priority over almost everything, and you have to be prepared when you get to traffic court and give as good of a testimony as you can. It was a deterrent to writing summonses at the time, but this was several years ago, and I don’t think that fear is as prevalent anymore.

NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill and Traffic Chief Thomas Chan came out in favor of renewing and expanding New York City’s lifesaving speed camera program, but your union, the Police Benevolent Association, opposed the program and helped dismantle it this summer. What do rank and file officers think?

Photo by Konstantin Sergeyev

Let’s talk about e-bikes. A person on an e-bike has never killed anyone in New York City. Why crack down on their use?

Are there quotas for e-bike seizures?

During these operations, is there a distinction made between legal pedal-assist and throttle e-bikes, which are in murky legal territory?

In the aftermath of a crash, unnamed police sources often blame the cyclist or pedestrian in the press. Investigations later prove these claims false. Why are leaks and victim-blaming so common?

It is NYPD policy to increase enforcement on cyclists after a fatal cycling crash, no matter the crash circumstances. What is the rationale there?

If officers were informed of the circumstances of the crash and the results of the investigation, would it be an effective tool to change attitudes or target enforcement in a more productive way?

Photo by Konstantin Sergeyev

Where do you see room for improvement? What more can be done to save lives?

If there were more officers who did traffic enforcement or the department required more time per day for traffic enforcement for regular officers, there would be further improvement in traffic safety. Of all the officers that are assigned to a precinct, a ballpark number of those focused on traffic enforcement would probably be 5 percent. There is no set time per day for traffic enforcement, so the typical sector car is running from 911 call to 911 call and you write summonses when you have the time and when you view violations in-between. But if there were more sector cars out there it would allow more free time for officers to do traffic enforcement exclusively. Then you would have more summonses issued, but that would require more officers on the street.

How can cyclists and pedestrians who feel at risk from dangerous driving change the system?

The NYPD is implementing a department-wide program, which should be complete in 2019, where the neighborhood coordinator officer is the go-to officer for a defined geographic area of a precinct. So if there’s an accident-prone location or a traffic safety condition, then residents should inform the officer who is tasked with addressing all police issues within that area by attending a neighborhood meeting or sending a written communication to the precinct.

As a police officer, what’s the one thing you want people who bike in New York City to know about the NYPD?

Speaking generally and being as honest as you can, do cops hate cyclists?

The only bias that I do hear will be “those bicyclists” type of general statements, the same for taxis. You’ll hear cops say, “Oh, look, those f-ing cabs are always stopping in the crosswalk,” or “They’ll cut across five lanes of traffic to cut you off,” or whatever. You hear a million things about cabs and what they do. The same things will be said about bicyclists. “He was going the wrong way. He went through five red lights in a row.” There’s a lot of cyclists that are not even remotely following traffic laws. They’re riding the wrong way on streets. They’re blowing light after light. They’re not yielding to pedestrians. And the violations are so blatant that it blemishes the view of all cyclists as being disrespectful of the law.

As a cyclist, I myself am embarrassed by a lot of the behavior that I see from other cyclists. It is not to say that I follow the rules 100 percent of the time but I follow them in the high 90s, and it seems like my fellow cyclists are getting failing grades from what I view, even on my saddle. When I go to public meetings for issues like a protected bicycle lane, all I hear from regular residents are complaints about bicyclist behavior. And I’m a little defensive. I say, “Oh, I’m not one of them but I understand what you’re saying.” But I feel indicted also, because I am a bicyclist, and unfortunately, these are my brethren.

To what extent is traffic enforcement based on complaints like these, compared to say, data?


A Note from the Editor

This interview, like all interviews in Reclaim, was edited for length and readability. However, this marks the first time that we have edited an interview to remove content — in particular, counterfactual claims about undocumented immigrants. When asked about the e-bike crackdown, the officer justified the enforcement with falsehoods about the bearing of immigration status on tax-paying, and blaming immigrants for job availability, wage undercutting, and criminal activity. We have chosen to not give column inches to these erroneous and xenophobic statements.

Transportation Alternatives calls on Mayor Bill de Blasio to immediately end complaint-driven policing. Automated enforcement is less biased and more effective than police summonsing, including New York’s functioning red light, speed, and bus lane cameras, and the potential of advances like bike lane and crosswalk cameras. These methods should be aggressively prioritized by the City of New York until they are the dominant form of traffic enforcement on city streets. Any police-led enforcement that does occur should exclusively use crash and injury data, rather than anecdotes, to drive priorities.

We also call upon Transportation Alternatives members to find solidarity with all people who are threatened by automobiles on our streets, and to confront racism and xenophobia when they see it, whether in the bike lane, on the bus, or in police enforcement.

Our mission is to reclaim New York City streets from the automobile. We intend to reclaim it for everyone. That is, in part, why Transportation Alternatives is in the process of an extensive training period and audit of internal policies and practices in hopes of building a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive organization. You will hear more about this process from us in the coming year.

Reclaim Magazine

The Official Magazine of Transportation Alternatives

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