Witness: Officer Drove Recklessly; Judge: Cyclist Probably Had Road Rage

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James Liu.

According to a witness, an off-duty police officer swerved in and out of traffic while chasing cyclist James Liu, driving in a “really dangerous” manner. However, at a hearing yesterday, Judge George Berbas upheld a charge of disorderly conduct against Liu. Berbas argued it was likely that the bike rider – not the officer – was guilty of road rage.

The incident occurred on October 14, around 8:15 a.m., when Liu, 33, was bicycling downtown on Milwaukee Avenue to his job as a bankruptcy attorney. After he turned south on Desplaines Street, he says, the driver of a silver SUV started edging into the Desplaines bike lane as he tried to illegally pass other vehicles on the right. Liu says the motorist was getting too close for comfort, so he knocked twice on the door of his truck to alert him of his presence.

Unfortunately for Liu, the driver was Officer Paul Woods, from the traffic administration department, who was also on his way to work. The attorney says Woods immediately began chasing him in the bike lane, then rolled down his window and yelled, “I’m a f—ing cop.”

UIC associate professor Rachel Havrelock was driving her daughter to school at the time. “I saw the SUV driver swerving in and out of traffic and he seemed to be going after the cyclist,” Havrelock told me. After Liu changed lanes to head east on Washington Street, Havrelock says Woods swerved across two lanes of southbound Desplaines to blockade the cyclist’s path. “I was very shocked by what I saw,” she said.

Woods then handcuffed Liu, called for backup, and had the attorney transported to a police station. Liu was ultimately charged with disorderly conduct.

At yesterday’s administrative hearing, Liu reiterated that he knocked on the SUV because Woods was driving in the bike lane, DNAinfo reported. However, the officer testified that he was stopped in traffic when the attorney banged on his vehicle and was not driving in the bike lane. He added that he was taken aback by Liu’s action, and that the attorney also extended a middle finger at him.

Liu told me today that it’s possible he did flip the officer the bird at some point during the incident, although he doesn’t recall doing so. However, he repeated that the SUV was moving towards him in the bike lane when he knocked on it, not stationary.

In finding Liu guilty of disorderly conduct, Judge Berbas asserted that the cyclist probably knocked on the SUV due to road rage or “overreaction to a traffic situation,” DNA reported. “If a Chicago police officer is in uniform on his way to work, he really just wants to get to work, check in and do his job,” Berbas said. “I don’t think that while in his personal vehicle he’s going to be looking to instigate or start anything.”

Liu told me the judge’s logic is flawed. “His statement seems to imply that an attorney who is just riding his bike to work is looking to start something,” Liu added. “What’s my motivation?”

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Woods used his SUV to blockade Liu, then handcuffed him. Photo: Ben Raines

Active Transportation Alliance director Ron Burke had a similar response to Berbas’ ruling. “How often have you seen a person on a bike or a pedestrian randomly pounding on a car?” he said. “It sounds like this was a case where Liu was at risk and needed to get the driver’s attention. The officer should have realized he made a mistake by driving in the bike lane and moved on, and it seems that the judge should have thrown out the case.”

An officer from Police News Affairs declined to comment on the outcome of the hearing.

Berbas ordered Liu to pay $290 in fines and court fees. The attorney says he didn’t retain another lawyer for the hearing because there was only a potential fine of $500. He plans to appeal the judge’s decision.

In fairness, Berbas can’t be blamed for being unaware that a third-party witness says Woods was driving dangerously when he chased Liu, since the cyclist didn’t ask Havrelock to testify at the hearing. Liu told me that, since Havrelock didn’t see him knock on Woods’ vehicle, only the aftermath, her testimony didn’t seem relevant for defending himself against the disorderly conduct charge.

Liu has retained the civil rights firm Loevy and Loevy for a future lawsuit against Woods, and he plans to enlist Havrelock as a witness for the suit. “Rachel’s testimony will be helpful for the civil rights lawsuit, because that has to do with how the officer reacted after the tapping, not what I did,” he said.

The attorney told me he’s been more cautious about interacting with the police since the incident, but he still rides his bike to work. “What am I going to do, buy a car?”

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Keith Griffith is a Chicago-based freelance writer and arts critic. Last October, while the dregs of Superstorm Sandy drifted over Chicago, Lilly was lying in the trauma unit at Northwestern Memorial. (For anonymity, she that asked we only use her nickname.) She’d been doored on Lincoln Avenue on her morning bike commute, and now doctors were swarming around […]