Is CPD Using Racial Profiling to Catch Divvy Thieves?

Police arrest Divvy rider Joshua Thomas last August. Photo: Eboni Senai Hawkins
Police arrest Divvy rider Joshua Thomas last August. Photo: Eboni Senai Hawkins

[This previously ran in the Chicago Reader.]

On the evening of August 18 last year, Eboni Senai Hawkins, cofounder of Chicago’s chapter of the black bicycle group Red Bike and Green, witnessed Joshua Thomas, a 22-year-old African-American, being stopped by police while riding a Divvy bike-share cycle on the sidewalk near Chicago Avenue and Rush Street. The officers handcuffed and frisked Thomas, called in the serial number on the baby-blue bike, and discovered it was stolen. They arrested Thomas, who was later sentenced to two days in jail.

During the height of that summer’s Divvy theft crisis, Senai Hawkins argued that police were targeting young black men for sidewalk-riding tickets as a strategy to recover hot bikes. She noted that people of all races pedal on sidewalks downtown, where hectic multilane streets put cyclists at risk, but she asserted that white sidewalk riders are rarely ticketed, let alone handcuffed and searched. “In no way is it OK for the Chicago police to enforce [a crackdown due to] the fact that Divvy has a technology issue.”

Soon afterward I spoke with black Old Town resident Hakeem Appling, 24, who was also riding a Divvy on the sidewalk near Chicago and Rush on July 18 when he was detained, cuffed, frisked, ticketed, and arrested for possession of a stolen bike. Appling argued that his skin color was a factor in the stop. “That’s harassment.”

Catrina Hampton, 23, a vehicle transporter for Hertz, was yet another African-American who was ticketed for sidewalk biking on a Divvy near Chicago and Rush on August 9. She said she was handcuffed and searched, but the police didn’t call in the number on her Divvy.

All told, 23 of the 30 adults ticketed for sidewalk riding in the two downtown police districts during July and August of last year were African-American, including 20 black men, according to records the city provided earlier this month. That’s about 77 percent of the ticket recipients in a city that’s roughly a third African-American.

Meanwhile only five non-Hispanic whites were ticketed. That’s approximately 17 percent of recipients, although whites also make up about a third of the city. (Of the other two people ticketed, one was Asian, while the other had no race listed on his ticket.)

Romanian immigrant Samuel Baltes, 21, was one of only two white men ticketed. On July 20, Baltes was biking down the sidewalk of Chicago near Rush on his old beater while making food deliveries for Postmates. Suddenly a squad car whipped around the corner to block his path. He said the officers wrote him a $50 ticket but he wasn’t cuffed or frisked.

Upward of 500 Divvies went missing last summer due to the shortsighted decision to remove a key piece of security hardware from their docks, according to city e-mails the Reader obtained in September. Soon afterward Divvy sped up the pace of reinstallation, wrapping up by the end of November, and, thankfully, the bike-share problem seems to be behind us.

Arrests for possession of stolen Divvies peaked in July and August, when more than 120 adults were charged citywide, according to the anonymous crime blog CWB Chicago. Of the 30 people ticketed for sidewalk riding downtown in those months, eight were arrested for possession of stolen bikes—all of them African-Americans on Divvies.

The CPD says it has used sidewalk biking enforcement to recover stolen cycles.

But after learning that 23 out of those 30 people were African-American, Senai Hawkins and other black bike advocates say the data confirms their suspicions: police have been unfairly singling out African-Americans who cycle downtown for tickets. “How else would you interpret it?” she asked.

A Divvy user rides across the old Water Tower pedestrian plaza. Photo: John Greenfield
A Divvy user rides across the old Water Tower pedestrian plaza. Photo: John Greenfield

David Griggs, who leads the monthly South Side Critical Mass bike rides, noted that the Chicago Tribune found that officers have written exponentially higher numbers of sidewalk-riding citations in some communities of color. Last summer a CPD representative admitted that this was due to bike enforcement being used as a pretext for searches in high-crime areas.

After seeing the downtown ticketing numbers, Griggs said, “It’s disheartening to know police are targeting black riders wherever they may ride, not just on the south and west sides.”

However, after I reported on the Appling and Thomas cases on Streetsblog last summer, CWB Chicago ran a post arguing that racial bias wasn’t a factor in those stops. It pointed out that the area around the Chicago Avenue Red Line station is designated as a crime hot spot by the CPD, so it has a 24/7 police presence.

A CPD representative confirmed this area is heavily policed due to numerous assault cases last year. Most recently, on December 9, a group of teens attacked three bystanders on the el platform, fracturing one man’s eye socket. Eight of the 30 ticketing incidents, including half of the arrests, occurred within this zone. CWB also noted that Appling and Thomas had each been arrested several times in the area for various offenses.

Prior arrest histories may have informed officers’ decisions to stop some of the other 28 downtown sidewalk riders. But that doesn’t necessarily explain why the cyclists who were ticketed, but not arrested, were still three times as likely to be black than white.

That ratio looks even worse when you consider that three of the five whites—all women—ticketed were caught in the same questionable bike dragnet on July 13 on the wide east sidewalk of the 100 block of North Michigan Avenue.

Five tickets were issued there between 5:27 and 6 PM in what CPD spokesman Howard Ludwig confirmed was a targeted enforcement event. “Keeping . . . cyclists in designated bike lanes is an important measure of protecting the safety of all citizens,” he said. However, there was no bike lane on Michigan at the time, although the Chicago Department of Transportation installed one in late July. One of the three white women cited told me she wasn’t cuffed or frisked.

Ludwig asserted that racial profiling didn’t play a role in decisions on whom to stop last summer, because officers had legitimate reasons to suspect some of the African-Americans who were ticketed had stolen bikes. “The CPD issues citations for riding on the sidewalk . . . without regard to race,” he said. “Reasonable suspicion is required ahead of any investigatory stop.”

“During the period of increased Divvy thefts last summer, officers were under guidance to be on the lookout for Divvy bikes with bent or broken spokes, which is an indicator that the bike had been [pried from the docks],” Ludwig added. However, it’s highly unlikely that a police officer would be able to spot faulty spokes on the spinning wheels of a moving Divvy.

CDOT, which oversees Divvy and may have provided that guidance, declined to comment.

Karen Sheley, director of ACLU of Illinois’s police practices project, told me the lopsided downtown bike enforcement numbers do indicate a racial equity problem. “Looking at this relatively small sample, the racial disparities reflect the disparities we’ve been concerned about in other, larger data sets for years, including driver and pedestrian stops across the city,” she said. “We also have to question whether enforcing low-level infractions as part of a broken-windows policy is really what the CPD should be doing right now. And if they are, that should be part of the public debate.”

Update: Following publication of this article, CPD spokesman Howard Ludwig confirmed that Hampton was arrested.

  • outerloop

    John, why do you continue to victim blame Divvy for bike theft? Thieves stole “due to [Divvy’s] shortsighted decision to remove a key piece of security hardware from their docks”
    Why don’t you blame the bike shops for recent burglaries at their businesses? Bike shops can take better security measures too and they know it, just as Divvy was aware of their security flaws.
    What responsibility do the thieves hold in both examples?

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Divvy removed a key document security component to make parking easier, which made it relatively simple to steal bikes. I’d argue that’s less like a bike shops being burglarized because the bars on its windows weren’t strong enough, and more like a bike shop getting burglarized because the owner decided not to lock the front door in order to make opening and closing the shop easier.

  • Leggy Mountbatten

    Soooo…the two people who were actually guilty of stealing bikes are complaining about being unfairly targeted? I think that if you have actual data on the number of stops of all cyclists, including those not riding Divvy (especially food delivery cyclists), then you’d have something. But a hit rate of 8/30 for stolen bikes is actually quite good.

  • Alter
  • David Henri

    John, you’re way off base here. Yes, Divvy had a “technology issue” as it was stated in that they could have had better security, but the reality of it is the thieves had a morality and legality issue. When someone is mugged is it the victim’s fault? Using that logic everything should be locked up because thieves have the right to try and take whatever they can and if they can get away with it, it’s the victim’s fault.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    And here’s our response to that CWB post: https://chi.streetsblog.org/2018/08/29/crime-blog-says-arrest-of-black-divvy-rider-was-justified-heres-what-they-didnt-tell-you/

    You know, it’s funny, the anonymous editor of CWB Chicago (he calls himself Scott Williams, but good luck tracking down which of the zillion Scott Williamses in Chicago he is) contacted me after the publication of this latest Reader article and claimed he was going to write a response, but he never did.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Correct, it’s wrong to steal Divvy bikes. It’s also wrong to steal an unlocked bike that’s leaning against a wall, or a car that’s parked with the keys in the ignition and the engine running. But if you’re the owner of a vehicle who foolishly leaves it unsecured, do you really have the right to be outraged when someone sees an opportunity and takes it?

  • Guest

    Victim blaming?

  • Carter O’Brien

    It’s certainly not a good idea to leave a bike unattended or a car running, but that doesn’t in any way change the fact it’s your property. A crime of opportunity is still a crime. If you see an unattended bike or car, you still know it’s not yours, right?

    Besides, kids have always ridden bikes & don’t necessarily have fancy U-locks or even a chain. So the standard practice was always to flip the bike upside down if you needed to run in a store, use a bathroom, etc. and didn’t have someone with you who could stay outside. That bought you a few seconds to come out and raise hell should you see someone start to mess with it.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    The point of the article is that, while people caught with stolen Divvies should be held responsible, if police are using racial profiling to make those arrests, stopping three times as many otherwise-innocent Black cyclists for sidewalk riding as white ones, the ends don’t justify the means.

  • rohmen

    Yes, you have the right to be outraged. Full stop.

    The separate question is whether the CPD is justified in using these sort of tactics. They’re not.

  • Anne A

    Agreed. Enforcement should be equal.

  • Carter O’Brien

    That’s certainly a fair point – but you muddied it considerably with your response.

  • Carter O’Brien

    What Rohmen said. Conflating these two issues is in no way acceptable. People leave bikes out all the time, go to the lakefront during the summer and you’ll see them lying in the beaches while people take a swim, leaning up against trees, etc.

  • rohmen

    These weren’t crimes of opportunity, though. You still had to know how to steal them, and make a very conscious effort to defeat the security. It took much more effort than I think your giving credit to. It’s not even really comparable to leaving your door unlocked. It’s comparable to locking the door, but not bothering with the deadbolt.

    Again, none of this is to say that racial profiling is acceptable. It’s not. You don’t get to target and harass a whole segment of society simply to recover stolen bikes.

    What is always an interesting quirk of human nature is the need for people to minimize the culpability of the offender to highlight the error of the police. Even criminals have due process rights, but people often hate the feeling that they’re letting criminal get away with something. Hence the need to make it seem like the criminal wasn’t that bad in the first place. They were bad, it’s just that the CPD is a bad actor in some situations as well.

  • JeBuS

    If I lock my door, but don’t put the chain on, is it my fault if my apartment is burglarized? You’re victim-blaming, plain and simple. It’s not Divvy’s fault that thieves stole bikes. Could it have been made more difficult to steal them? Yes. But that doesn’t absolve thieves of the crimes they committed.

    Would it be nice if 100% of all law-breaking people were treated exactly the same? Yes. Is it wrong that law-breaking people are targeted by police? No.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Am I unfairly blaming Divvy for being the victim of thefts? I’ll let Luc Sabbatini, the CEO of PBSC, the company that manufactures the Divvy hardware, answer that question, from an email he sent to Sean Wiedel, the CDOT assistant commissioner who manages the bike-share program. “The Chicago situation is unique to Chicago. We do not have issues with missing bikes anywhere else, including Brazil, which could be the toughest market in the world. As of August 26th we only have seven bikes missing for a long period within all our systems around the world, when the number is over 500 in Chicago alone!” More on this subject: https://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/divv…

  • JeBuS

    You’re attacking a strawman. Divvy theft is worse here. Murder is also worse here. Shall we blame the murder victims?

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Chicago’s bike-share theft problem was the result of a poor choice made by Divvy, not a reflection of our city’s crime rate. Other PBSC cities like Washington D.C., Rio de Janeiro, and Sao Paolo have significantly higher murder rates than Chicago, but according to Sabbatini, PBSC bike-share theft was virtually nonexistent in those places.

  • JeBuS

    You’re continuing with the strawman. Are you or are you not blaming Divvy (the victim) for the theft of their bikes?

  • johnaustingreenfield

    “Chicago’s bike-share theft problem was the result of a poor choice made by Divvy.” In other words, yes, Divvy is to blame for the theft of their bikes. Stealing unsecured bikes is wrong, but Divvy brought this problem upon themselves. As Luc Sabbatini implied, the experiences of other, higher-crime cities than Chicago show that no removal of dock security hardware = no bike-share theft problem.

  • JeBuS

    The first step towards recovery is admitting to yourself that you have a problem. Your perspective has become so warped by special interests that you’re beating a war drum against police for targeting people breaking the law and blaming the victim of theft.

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