The CPD’s “Biking While Black” Enforcement Practices Have Got to Stop

Robert Calvin rides in Chicago's Austin neighborhood. During a roughly nine-month period last year police wrote 321 bike citations in Austin but only 30 in majority-white Lakeview. Photo: John Greenfield
Robert Calvin rides in Chicago's Austin neighborhood. During a roughly nine-month period last year police wrote 321 bike citations in Austin but only 30 in majority-white Lakeview. Photo: John Greenfield

In January I wrote about a study by Rutgers researcher Charles T. Brown that found that concerns about racial profiling by police are a significant deterrent to cycling in communities of color. In a survey of 1,660 African-American, Latino, and mixed-race New Jersey residents, 21 percent of men who ride bikes said they had been unfairly stopped by police while cycling. 14 percent of all respondents said fear of police profiling was a barrier to biking.

On Friday Chicago Tribune transportation columnist Mary Wisniewski reported that over-policing of bicyclists of color appears to be an even bigger problem in Chicago’s African-American neighborhoods. Wisniewski’s investigation revealed that twice as many tickets for biking infractions are being written in black-majority community areas than in Latino or white areas.

Moreover, there’s a huge disparity in the number of citations being written in some African-American communities compared to some predominantly white areas with high levels of biking. Wisniewski found that between January 1 and September 22 of last year 321 tickets were written for bike infractions such as sidewalk riding and wrong-way riding in the majority-black Austin neighborhood, according to Chicago Department of Finance records. During the same period there were only five bike tickets written in majority-white Lincoln Park, which has one of the city’s highest bike mode share levels.

Wisniewski notes that the number of bike tickets written citywide skyrocketed from 468 tickets in 2010 to 3,301 in 2015. (Presumably the number of citations written to drivers didn’t also spike by 600 percent during this period, but that’s a whole other issue.) But the increase in the number of citations issued in predominantly black North Lawndale was 23 times higher, soaring from eight to 185 tickets.

A partial explanation for these disparities might be that in underserved neighborhoods with relatively few bike lanes, more people may ride on sidewalks because they believe it’s unsafe to ride in the street. Lack of access to information on safe cycling practices may also result in more people in these communities cycling against traffic because they’re concerned about being struck from behind.

But these highly lopsided numbers suggest that larger number of citations being issued in black neighborhoods can’t simply be attributed to more lawbreaking by bike riders in these areas. They indicate that officers are much more likely to stop and ticket people for bike infractions in African-American neighborhoods than they are for the same behavior in other parts of town.

Community leaders and bike advocates responded to these number by arguing that this “biking while black” enforcement phenomenon is particularly unfair because the $50-200 fines can be a serious hardship for residents of lower-income areas. They noted that “broken windows”-style enforcement of bike infractions is a waste of police resources in neighborhoods that are heavily impacted by violent crime. And they hypothesized that officers may detain people for minor infractions on bikes as an excuse for otherwise-unconstitutional “stop-and-frisk” policing tactics.

Slow Roll Chicago’s Dan Black told Wisniewski he’s seen people riding into oncoming traffic in black neighborhoods and warned them that they could be targeted by police. “I said, ‘Hey, you know that’s probable cause,’” he recalled saying to a resident he encountered while on a group ride. The cyclist immediately turned around and joined the ride.

Whatever the reasons are for police writing far more tickets to African-American cyclists than others who break rules on bikes, the Chicago Police Department needs to be held accountable for stopping this practice immediately. Residents of lower-income communities of color have the most to gain from the mobility, health, and economic benefits of bicycling. So not only is racial profiling of black bike riders illegal and unjust, but by discouraging cycling, it contributes to a missed opportunity for improving outcomes in these neighborhoods.

  • Melody G

    Thanks for this follow, John. We need to put these issues front and center in our advocacy for more livable streets.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Thanks, but Mary Wisniewski deserves the credit for the great investigative reporting. In this case I’m just the (former bike) messenger.

  • Melody G

    Absolutely. Mary is a boss!

  • Kelly Pierce

    Missing from this article is the fact that these areas have
    higher concentrations of police officers.
    In fact, aldermen in Lincoln Park and Lakeview have been clamoring for
    years to have more officers as they have been diverted to other neighborhoods
    that have more crime. The phrase “biking
    while black” impugns the integrity of Chicago police officers and advances the notion
    that a policy exists to aggressively enforce bicycle laws against black bicyclists. It’s worth raising questions about what caused
    the ticketing, but John passes judgement against dedicated officers simply
    enforcing the laws the community created and supports through its elected
    officials. The broken windows theory of
    crime was advance by George Kelling in 1982.
    It was utilized by William Bratton to eliminate graffiti from the New
    York Transit system. Rudy Giuliani
    adopted Kelling’s ideas as Mayor of New York and promoted Bratton as police
    chief. New York drastically reduced
    crime in the 1990s with this strategy helping create an economic turnaround and
    many talented people moving to New York.

    Why should I pay higher bicycle fines because I am white? Such a notion is completely unconstitutional,
    where people in this society are given equal protection under the law. Fines could be based on income, but that
    could turn into an administrative nightmare.
    The fines are intended to deliver an economic sting to prevent further
    violations.

  • Carter O’Brien

    I’m more bothered by the wrong-way riding tickets than the riding on the sidewalk ones. With the former, this is something you see all over the City and I have never seen a causal link to any other safety issue, so that discrepancy is a problem.

    With the latter, imagine being a little kid playing on the sidewalk and having some fully grown teenager or adult come barreling towards you on a bike, or being a parent walking a few kids to school, or someone walking their dog, etc. It’s not legal for adults to ride on the sidewalk for a reason, and that law pre-dates bike lanes altogether by decades.

    Do we really want to change the law prohibiting adults riding on the sidewalk? Think this one through… I would say yes only for seniors (which is overdue, IMO), everyone else, ride in the street.

    If you want bike lanes, advocate for them, it is more likely that it is *your* neighbors that are going to be the hurdle as it is the existence of some grand conspiracy by CDOT.

  • Miles Bader

    Do we really want to change the law prohibiting adults riding on the
    sidewalk? Think this one through… I would say yes only for seniors
    (which is overdue, IMO), everyone else, ride in the street.

    The rider’s age isn’t the relevant attribute.

    Riding on the sidewalk should be legal if the rider is riding in an appropriate manner for the location.

    That mostly means slowly and carefully, more slowly and more carefully the more crowded the sidewalk, probably with riding prohibited above some certain dense crowding factor.

  • Carter O’Brien

    What you’re describing is what should be common sense, which as the saying goes, is depressingly uncommon. So that is why the rider’s age is the relevant law.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    “The phrase ‘biking while black’ impugns the integrity of Chicago police officers and advances the notion that a policy exists to aggressively enforce bicycle laws against black bicyclists.” It’s not clear whether this is an official CPD policy, but in practice this is exactly what’s happening. The fact that 30 times as many tickets were written in Austin than Lakeview can’t simply be explained by a higher concentration of police or more lawbreaking by cyclists in Austin. It’s obvious that the police *are* more aggressively enforcing bike laws in black neighborhoods.

  • Joe R.

    The “broken windows” theory itself is broken. Cities which didn’t implement broken windows still experienced similar drops in crime. The hard fact is having police enforce petty offenses, no matter what those offenses are, wastes police resources and also turns the general public against the police. Most of these petty offenses aren’t even “laws the community created”. They were often kneejerk reactions by legislators to “solve” some problem which existed only in the minds of a few vocal complainers who had the legislator’s ear. Or in short, the police are enforcing laws which probably should never have existed in the first place.

    I’m not even sure enforcement is what led to a reduction in graffiti on the NYC transit system. Rather, it was part of a sea change in culture where youth had other outlets besides tagging. A lot of the remaining graffiti these days is done by people in their 40s or 50s who are just continuing to do what they did as a youth. When these people get too old for this, what little graffiti remains will die out.

    Bottom line, you give way too much credit to Guiliani and Bratton. Both are rightly reviled by most NYers these days. Bratton helped foster an NYPD mentality in which officers act like an occupation force. Also, the police never seem to want to apply broken windows to the problem of traffic violence, perhaps because they identify with drivers, but see cyclists as scofflaws.

  • Dorian Douma

    I wonder if we’ve got the same thing going on here in Toronto, at least in the suburbs, because I notice the cyclist population seems more white than the pedestrian population. There’s all these rough spots you have to pass through to get anywhere, and the sidewalks are so narrow, you can’t even walk your bike on them if there’s someone walking the other way. So there’s actually no safe and legal way for cyclists to get from one area to the next, so we’ve got all these perfect hunting grounds for predatory police.

    Maybe instead of asking for protected bike lanes through these rough spots, I should be asking for wider sidewalks, so there’s enough room for me to walk my bike through them without hitting any other pedestrians. A pretty sad and funny approach to cycling advocacy, but I think it has more promise.

  • Kelly Pierce

    John,

    My earlier statement was based on:

    “Community leaders and bike advocates responded to these
    number by arguing that this “biking while black” enforcement phenomenon is
    particularly unfair

    because the $50-200 fines can be a serious hardship for
    residents of lower-income areas. “

    Let’s both agree that a lower fine schedule should be
    available for those with very low incomes or the ability for people to work off
    their fines through community service. Bicycle
    law infractions, no matter how small, are now the latest pretext for a police stop,
    search and a check for outstanding warrants.

    John,

    My earlier statement was based on:

    “Community leaders and bike advocates responded to these
    number by arguing that this “biking while black” enforcement phenomenon is
    particularly unfair

    because the $50-200 fines can be a serious hardship for
    residents of lower-income areas. “

    Let’s both agree that a lower fine schedule should be
    available for those with very low incomes or the ability for people to work off
    their fines through community service. Bicycle
    law infractions, no matter how small, are now the latest pretext for a police stop,
    search and a check for outstanding warrants.

  • Carter O’Brien

    The tickets are not being written for walking bicycles on the sidewalk, they are for riding bicycles on the sidewalk.

  • Carter O’Brien

    So your argument is that there shouldn’t be a law banning adults riding their bikes on the sidewalk?

    You seem to be assuming that a) this is a petty offense and b) the law was somehow fast tracked through City Council due to a few “vocal complainers.” These are speculative and subjective assessments.

    I believe you are greatly underestimating the complexities of the City Council, try getting a new ordinance passed if you don’t believe me. And the under-12 age limit for riding on the sidewalk was in force at least back to the early 80s, so clearly there has no widespread effort to remove the ordinance.

    And it is a shame for everyone how the original broken windows findings have been warped and manipulated over time. What Bratton and Giulani did wasn’t what the authors were supporting – read this piece and I think you’ll find that some of their core ideas are what people today are clamoring for (more foot patrols/less cops in cars and better community relationships, specifically)

    https://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/11/nyregion/author-of-broken-windows-policing-defends-his-theory.html?_r=0

  • Joe R.

    If you’re talking about NYC there weren’t any laws against sidewalk cycling until the early 1990s when Gifford Miller in the City Council had them passed. Prior to that it was legal to ride on sidewalks. Or it it wasn’t, the law was never enforced.

    And yes, there shouldn’t be a blanket prohibition against sidewalk cycling in the five boroughs. You can selectively ban it during business hours on some more crowded streets, like in midtown Manhattan, or the “downtown” parts of the outer boroughs. There’s no reason adult cyclists can’t use the nearly empty sidewalks in the outer boroughs as defacto protected bike lanes if they feel riding in the street is too dangerous. Any age-based rule is ridiculous. A 13 year-old doesn’t magically become able to ride in the street on their birthday. And adults who may not have ridden in years are functionally equivalent to young children in their tolerance of riding in motor traffic.

    And it is a shame for everyone how the original broken windows findings have been warped and manipulated over time.

    That’s exactly the problem. Broken windows originally started out as going after squeegee men, aggressive panhandlers, vandals, and so forth. Basically, we were arresting people who were actively harassing people or destroying property. That was fine. Most of the public supported it. Support started waning when police started enforcing all sorts of petty laws on the books where the person wasn’t really creating a problem. Cycling on empty sidewalks is but one example. Slow rolling through red lights at empty intersections was another. Jaywalking was yet another example, although aggressive enforcement of this didn’t last long due to public outcry. In all cases the police were enforcing laws which either shouldn’t have existed, or were badly written. I have no objection to a law against recklessly riding on sidewalks, although that of course requires some guidelines to determine exactly what constitutes reckless riding. I have no objection to ticketing cyclings or pedestrians going through red lights if they violate the right-of-way of someone who has the green. The laws should be modified to reflect that by allowing cyclists/pedestrians to treat red lights as yields, rather than stops.

    Let’s instead demand that aggressive drivers be ticketed aggressively and make the streets safer for everyone.

    That’s what should constitute the majority of traffic enforcement because motorists are statistically far more dangerous than bicycles. I’m fine ticketing cyclist who aggressively endanger pedestrians but 99% of the cycling enforcement doesn’t qualify. By the same token when I say laws should be enforced more against drivers I want a focus on laws which actually protect people. Failure to yield should be enforced aggressively. Aggressive driving, like jockeying for position or aggressive lane changing, should be heavily enforced. However, just as I say we shouldn’t ticket cyclists for generally harmless but technical infractions, we shouldn’t start handing out speeding tickets for going 5 or 10 over the limit in areas with little pedestrian activity. I want enforcement which really makes people safer. That often means the policing based on statistics, not on the level of community complaints. The fact a lot of people may complain about something doesn’t necessarily mean it warrants police action. If sidewalk cycling is really a concern, the best answer to it isn’t ticketing, but safe bike infrastructure which gets cyclists off the sidewalks.

  • Carter O’Brien

    You are on a Chicago based board. Here, stay off the sidewalk if you’re over 12.

  • Dorian Douma

    Yes, I know. And I’m talking about places where, like I said, to get from one area to another, you have to use sidewalks that are in fact too narrow to walk on with your bike next to you, while passing another pedestrian coming from the opposite direction. So people end up getting off their bikes to cross a rail bridge on foot, then getting back on their bikes to pass a pedestrian coming from the other way, because otherwise they don’t have enough room to get past that person. In that situation, ticketing a person for cycling on the sidewalk is basically entrapment, because it’s their only option for getting across the bridge that’s not unsafe to them or pedestrians, and it happens to be illegal. Bridge, underpass, there’s all these spots like this between ‘hoods, and motor traffic speeds are high.

  • Dorian Douma

    I think the problem with this is, there are a lot of places in any city or town where there’s lots of pedestrian traffic, and most of the roadway has been cleared of pedestrians and cyclists so that drivers can use it at high speed. So cyclists are being forced through these spots where even when they get off their bikes, they’re totally in the way. That’s not a good, practical part of a commute. All the roads I can’t use, as a cyclist, have extra lanes that drivers don’t need. Cars race through in packs, so they’re either going too fast to mix with, or they’re sitting there waiting to take off. Either way, there’s all this road space that’s being used intensely in short bursts. Even during rush hour, there’s all this extra space that is not really helping drivers. It’s just squishing everyone else together. And we’re just fighting for the remaining space. We have no reason to settle for the scraps.

  • Carter O’Brien

    I am still not buying that you “have” to use the sidewalk in the first place. And to be clear, I don’t really have any problem with someone riding a short distance on a sidewalk if they are doing so respectfully. I don’t think they should be targeted for law enforcement for the most part. But it is that “respectfully” part that is important. I have seen first hand plenty of rude, bullying cyclists on sidewalks. And the idea that this is the new normal is just ridiculous. Again, thousands of us grew up riding in streets long before there were any bike lanes at all.

  • Dorian Douma

    K there’s two neighborhoods. You have to cross through a tunnel to get between them. The road through the tunnel is too dangerous to use, and the sidewalk through the tunnel is so narrow, you can barely fit on it while walking your bike. So while walking your bike, when someone’s walking the other way, there’s no room for them to get past. Is that clear enough? When the sidewalk is too narrow and the road is too dangerous and the segment of road can’t be avoided.

  • Carter O’Brien

    I see your point, but it is applicable in about one half of 1% of all situations. If you’re suggesting this is why the people in question are being ticketed, the story doesn’t go into that kind of detail – and it seems highly unlikely in my experience. What I see are healthy adults riding on sidewalks, often inappropriately fast, on arterial streets as they don’t want to deal with traffic.

  • Dorian Douma

    No, it’s applicable to every single trip between one area and another. So if police are just looking for opportunities to detain people, then they can just camp out at any of these places. It’s not legitimate police work but a lot of departments have a reputation for doing this kind of stuff.

  • Carter O’Brien

    Two different conversations. I completely agree we have this law being used as a pretext to get in peoples’ business. That does not mean the law is the problem, it means it is being improperly applied.

    There is a reason why adults are not supposed to bike on the sidewalk, and why this is the law of the land. If you can go back to when the ordinance was rolled out and find some evidence aughestong ulterior motives, then you may be able to make a case. But given as everyone in Chicago grows up with a law that is as simple to follow as “drive on the right side of the road,” I don’t think this one example of policing overreach negates the need for the law.

    Or look at it this way – littering is illegal. We could agree that you shouldn’t be focusing police on enforcing this selectively. But if you try to say that “hey, I littered because it was unsafe to walk to the trash can,” you are rationalizing bad behavior.

  • Dorian Douma

    Yeah, the law completely makes sense, what doesn’t make sense is putting in roads that exclude cyclists, when it’s illegal to cycle on the sidewalk. It’s a very simple conversation they could have had: “Well, we don’t want cyclists on the sidewalk, and we’re designing the road for high speed motorized traffic, so obviously we need to make provisions for the cyclists.” But the conversation seems to have gone more like “we have to make cycling totally impossible for transportation because cars are so much more profitable. Like ten times the cost to the consumer. Let’s just make it impossible to get around any other way.” So in LA, car companies bought up all the streetcar lines so they could throw the streetcars into the ocean, and they put highways snaking through where their massive cycling highway in the sky used to be. It really does seem to me like the combination of dangerous streets and forbidden sidewalks was the one-two punch that’s kept the auto and oil industry as profitable as it is, and also given police easy access to poor black people. And a lot of other people, but when the infrastructure and ethnicity and poverty situation and transportation mode all line up like this in this perfect easy field of fire for police vs black people, with the history that we have, with the current events that we have, when the police have such a heavy reputation for trumped up charges against this one demographic of people, it’s so suspicious. It’s gonna generate articles.

  • Dorian Douma

    Well and it really shows that there never was any plan to our roads. Our highways were built to a plan, but the typical standard city street isn’t based on any kind of testing or refinement or anything. There was no plan. Or if there was a plan, it was to punish everyone who wasn’t driving.

  • Carter O’Brien

    Agreed on all of this. Absolutely!

  • Kelly Pierce

    The Second
    city cop blog has just put forward a strong defense on high numbers of Chicago
    Police stops of African Americans. The blog responded to a published report showing
    that more than 70 percent of all police stops were of African Americans. It said
    the newspaper article contained “the complete ignorance of statistical reality to
    push the anti-police agenda.” The blog furthered its defense by saying: “Last time we checked, white people (and
    folks) are the minority in Chicago nowadays. Just laying that out there. And if
    the “reporters” had actually done some homework, they’d hop over to
    HeyJackass.com and note that upwards of 80% of crime victims (along with
    identified offenders) are so-called “minority.” So it would only make
    sense that 71% of the stops are people fitting the description of known
    offenders. It simply doesn’t make sense in ACLU-World to do street stops of
    people in regard to their percentage of the population – the population is not
    reflective of the reality. But the “reporters” run with this story,
    spreading the anti-police narrative because Rahm has a contract to negotiate
    this summer, and a trial, and a promotional scandal to cover up.” The blog post
    can be found at:

    https://secondcitycop.blogspot.com/2017/03/and-again.html

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Setting aside the question of whether those two highly problematic blogs are credible sources, that argument is not relevant to the “Biking While Black.” issue. Even given a higher density of police officers in Austin, there’s no way that anywhere near 10 times as many bicyclists in Austin as Lakeview deserved to be ticketed.

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