Petty Law Enforcement Hits Tampa Bike Riders, with Racial Implications


Police have far too many petty reasons to interfere with our free movement through the world, and this fact has a noticeable crushing effect particularly on the lives of the less-well-to-do. This is something I've lamented at length here before.

photosteve101 / Foter / CC BY

Out of Tampa this week some vivid stories on that theme, involving moving violations against bicycle riders, with what seems to be an element of racially-unbalanced enforcement.

From Tampa Bay Times:

In the past three years, Tampa police have written 2,504 bike tickets — more than Jacksonville, Miami, St. Petersburg and Orlando combined.

Police say they are gung ho about bike safety and focused on stopping a plague of bike thefts.

But here's something they don't mention about the people they ticket:

Eight out of 10 are black.

Tampa Bay Times investigation has found that Tampa police are targeting poor, black neighborhoods with obscure subsections of a Florida statute that outlaws things most people have tried on a bike, like riding with no light or carrying a friend on the handlebars.

Officers use these minor violations as an excuse to stop, question and search almost anyone on wheels. The department doesn't just condone these stops, it encourages them, pushing officers who patrol high-crime neighborhoods to do as many as possible.

Many infuriating anecdotes follow:

There was the 56-year-old man who rode his bike through a stop sign while pulling a lawnmower. Police handcuffed him while verifying he had, indeed, borrowed the mower from a friend.

There was the 54-year-old man whose bike was confiscated because he couldn't produce a receipt to prove it was his.

One woman was walking her bike home after cooking for an elderly neighbor. She said she was balancing a plate of fish and grits in one hand when an officer flagged her down and issued her a $51 ticket for not having a light. With late fees, it has since ballooned to $90. She doesn't have the money to pay.

The Times analyzed more than 10,000 bicycle tickets Tampa police issued in the past dozen years. The newspaper found that even though blacks make up about a quarter of the city's population, they received 79 percent of the bike tickets.

Some riders have been stopped more than a dozen times through the years, and issued as many as 17 tickets. Some have been ticketed three times in one day…..

But most bike stops that led to a ticket turned up no illegal activity; only 20 percent of adults ticketed last year were arrested.

When police did arrest someone, it was almost always for a small amount of drugs or a misdemeanor like trespassing.

One man went to jail for refusing to sign a ticket.

A Tampa City Councilman wants to investigate the civil rights law implications of Tampa's bike-citation practices.

Unstressed in the story is the cascading effect of unpaid tickets, fines, court dates that can come along with not paying the fines, that can accompany the most petty of citations for things that pose pretty much no threat to public safety that actually require policing. It's a terrible trap for the poor, set by local police.