Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The Racial Profiling of a Bicicleta Bandito

When I rushed back outside with my camera Tuesday evening, bicyclist "Felipe" was still being detained but the cops had yet to start writing him a ticket. His crime? Being an "errant" bicyclist. Oh yeah, he's also Latino.

I start taking pictures, officer 1 immediately approaches me.

"Can I help you?"

"Just curious."

"He was riding on the sidewalk."

(I'd only seen him riding in the bike lane in the opposite direction when the cops pulled him over, but I'm sure it's possible - cops never lie).

"Anything else you need?"

"No sir. Just curious."

Officer 1 walks back over and joins officer 2, who is now taking Felipe's picture. They discuss something, look in my direction, give Felipe his ID back, and take off.

I approach Felipe...

He looks a little shaken up. Ironically, I'm about to tell him about Santa Cruz's new bicycle traffic school, where he can get a $35 scolding instead of a $100 fine, when I realize, they didn't give him a ticket.

Felipe explains that the police had initially pulled him over for riding his bike incorrectly but then started asking him where he's going (home), where he's coming from (soccer practice), if he's in a gang (no), and then take his picture. He points out that his street is the next block over and that it makes little sense to cross 30-40 feet of pavement just to cross back in a couple of seconds. He also points out that he's seen little girls riding their bikes the way he has and asks me if I think the police would have pulled them over.

I try to picture a scenario where the police pull over some of the girls I'd also seen riding "errantly" in the neighborhood, asking for their IDs, if they were in a gang, and then taking their picture - I can't come up w/ anything.

As Felipe gets back on his cruiser and rides down an empty sidewalk, I'm filled with more questions than answers: Does the bicycle traffic school do anything to address the issue of police using minor traffic violations to start a profile on someone who isn't white? Is it possible that it gives the police a green light to start pulling over more bicyclists? Does the fact that modern day streets are designed for car-use (wide lanes, soft corners, etc) play a role in discouraging bicyclists from complying with traffic laws? Should traffic laws designed for motorized vehicles be equally applied to non-motorized vehicles?

It would be foolish to claim there aren't bicyclists who don't ride recklessly. But it would be more foolish to claim that having to occasionally maneuver around oncoming riders in a bike lane is the safety equivalent of dodging car doors, or getting paralyzed by a driver who was talking on his cell phone. Anyone who's ever ridden on the San Lorenzo levy or by the buffered Boardwalk "Rail-Trail" path knows this. Seriously, most bike lanes can easily fit two way bike traffic - it's the parked cars that make space tight.

As for Felipe, the good news is he didn't get a ticket. The bad news is the police now have a file on him, and to a certain degree, have given off the impression that the law isn't as color blind as they claim. To that end, I think I'll keep a camera on me from now on...

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