The Thin Bike Line

An anonymous NYPD officer explains the enforcement of Vision Zero

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?

There’s definitely been a shift in what’s desired when it comes to moving violation summonses because of Vision Zero. Before Vision Zero, officers had a performance objective as to how many summonses were expected, in terms of criminal, traffic, or parking, but there wasn’t a whole lot of direction as to what types of violations of each type of summons. Now the precinct and even the patrol boroughs are pushing traffic violations that are considered Vision Zero violations, such as running through red lights, failure to yield to pedestrians, disobeying signs, and improper turns. Every precinct that I’m aware of has a traffic safety office, and traffic safety officers whose prime responsibility is to do traffic enforcement. Pretty much all of the summonses they write have to do with Vision Zero violations, as they’re defined by the police department brass. The regular patrol officers that handle normal 911 calls are also expected to do traffic enforcement. The precincts are pushing Vision Zero violations exclusively, not non-Vision Zero violations, like a broken headlight or a taillight or something along those lines.

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

It’s pretty much just time. I personally am very sensitive to traffic issues because I drive, I’m a bicyclist, I’m a pedestrian, and I’m a transit user. I’m very sensitive to people who double park, to people making improper turns, to all the things that people do wrong driving their vehicles. That said, there are so many things that I have to ignore simply because there’s a 911 call that I’m going to or there’s another assignment that I’m being sent to, or there are other responsibilities that I am required to address. My entire day could be spent just dealing with traffic and nothing else would get done. There are only so many hours in the day and there are so many other things that compete with an officer’s time to write 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’ve been to a few different traffic courts around the city, and the discretion of the judges varies significantly between those courts. I’ve had so many experiences in traffic court that infuriated me that I try to put them out of my memory or else they’d keep me up at night.

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?

It’s not something I’ve ever heard spoken about in the locker rooms, or in a police car, or in the precinct lobby. I’m not saying it’s not an issue with police officers, I’m just saying that I’ve never heard it spoken about. If I had to venture a guess as to what people think, I would say that regular police officers, as well as the general public who don’t have children in the public schools, are more often than not against them, simply because it is like Big Brother looking over your shoulder, and there is no recourse if you get caught. Americans in general are okay with a little bit of law breaking, just not a whole lot, and are probably not a huge fan of enforcement cameras unless they themselves are the beneficiary of the enforcement, either because they have children in that school or because it’s located on a block near where they live or work.

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?

I believe with e-bikes, it was so prevalent at so many community meetings, and also people just walking up to individual officers and complaining, that some individual officers heard the complaints and acted on their own. I myself have heard tons of complaints about e-bikes.

Are there quotas for e-bike seizures?

No one has ever approached me with a number to seize e-bikes. The only thing that would come close to a quota is, occasionally, there is a borough or precinct-level operation for a number of officers in one day to focus on e-bikes for a portion of the tour. But that’s rare and it’s an operation that’s supervised. It’s not at the discretion of the officer.

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

Absolutely. Any time I’ve gotten training regarding e-bikes, throttle has been a main word throughout. Not only do I rarely see pedal assist e-bikes, I’ve never seized one or seen one seized.

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?

Victim-blaming is not something I’ve ever really encountered so I can’t say for sure, but I can envision it happening for several reasons. Incompetence is the main one. Incompetence in not canvassing and interviewing witnesses, in not carefully interviewing the participants of the crash to get a full understanding of what happened, and in not being very skeptical of all statements. Another reason is that the patrol officer doesn’t have all the tools at his fingertips to overcome the crash participant statements that he’s required to write in the report. For example, video evidence is not something typically available at the scene of the crash. My guess, since I don’t have firsthand knowledge of the circumstances as to how this might happen, is because some cops try to be “helpful” in providing information, prior to the conclusion of the investigation, and may not even realize they’re providing information to the press. The only available information may be the driver’s account of the crash since the bicyclist or pedestrian is either dead or unconscious. I can’t envision a scenario where a leak to the press after a crash is meant to have a nefarious agenda. Incompetence, that I can easily see.

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

Any time there is a fatality, whether it involves a bicycle or not, even if it’s a passenger in a vehicle, there’s something called a “72 hour plan” enacted. Enforcement is stepped up for all moving violations within a reasonable distance of that crash for 72 hours. Crashes are not just accidents; usually someone did something wrong. So the rationale for the 72 hour plan, I’m guessing, is that they figure anytime someone dies, because it’s a serious thing, they focus on that area to see what people were doing wrong there to prevent another fatality. Any time I’ve seen the 72 hour plan put into effect, they’ve never advertised the specifics of the crash. They just say that someone was killed there and they are looking for Vision Zero violations committed in that area.

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?

I think better direction has to be received from the supervisors at the precinct level and at the borough level, just as Vision Zero was implemented, to say that there are certain violations that they’re looking for and certain violations that they’re not looking for. If they had given those types of specifics for 72 hour plans, then the enforcement would change.

Photo by Konstantin Sergeyev

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

We’re on the right track as far as better street design. There seems to be an increase in protected bike lanes, which is a huge improvement from regular bicycle lanes. I’d like to see even more of them throughout the city. I would also like if the State did more to punish very bad drivers. I’ve stopped people that have 20 and 30 moving violations on their record. And they have valid driver’s licenses. I’m just writing them one more that they’ll handle two or three years from now because the State seems to allow them to postpone the trials indefinitely. I’d like to see fines for violations go up, and perhaps people would be more careful when driving. I’d like to see judges in traffic court be a bit more reasonable when they hear testimony because it seems like a lot of people who are obviously guilty are walking for no reasonable reason.

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?

In general, I think enforcement of Vision Zero violations is addressing pedestrian and bicyclist concerns. But if you want to be specific as to a certain intersection or roadway, then you would have to reach out directly to the precinct, preferably in written communication. Email, letters, and be forceful with it. One is not enough. Keep up the pressure.

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?

The NYPD in general supports bicycling and cares for cyclist safety — and one of the major ways to ensure their safety is to follow the traffic rules.

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

In general, I think the average cop who isn’t a cyclist doesn’t really pay cyclists much mind positive or negative. It’s just like someone walking down the sidewalk. They’re not doing anything that bothers me or anyone else. Depending on where you work, you can see thousands of people bike by every single day. If they’re doing the right thing, you don’t pay them any mind one way or another. There’s some things that when you see them, your antenna goes up. For the average cop, a bicyclist is not one of those things.

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?

I would say the majority of traffic enforcement regarding e-bikes and bicyclists is based on complaints.

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.