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.

NEXT: Three Questions About Rand Paul

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Recently, I made the mistake of wading into the comments on a CNN article about the need for prison reform and tamping down punishments for non-violent and consentual crimes. That’s quite possibly the dumbest thing I’ve ever done in my life. Those people make Tulpa look like a cop-hater.

    Anyhoo, this is all down to the cops wanting an excuse to search people and get around the 4th amendment, or whatever shreds of the 4th amendment still exist. The fees and fines are just a bonus.

    1. Which is part of why racializing an issue is such a bad idea: it automatically draws lines in the sand. For the hucksters it’s a solid gambit to draw attention and profit off the media. For the people living with the issue, it merely rallies opposition against reform.

      Is this policy racially biased? In effect if not by intention it almost certainly appears to be. Maybe cops stop as many white riders as black, or at least a proportionate amount, but find no further reason to hassle them. I doubt it. But kicking off a witch hunt to ferret out racist cops solves nothing. We can’t get cops fired, let alone charged or convicted, with video evidence of heinous physical abuses. What use is making impossible to prove allegations of discriminatory behavior on the beat?

      1. It leaves the racial qualifier advocates like Morrison with the ludicrous position of having to argue in favor of greater victimhood for the so-called privileged white caste, rather than making the much less inflammatory argument in favor of reforming the scope and scale of legal interface police have with the public. The minutia and multitude of laws is the problem here, and it allows cops free rein in hassling black communities. That may be due to latent racism or for the sport of bullying citizens with little effective recourse. I think it’s more to do with policing for profit than sociopathy or bigotry. Whatever the case, the cause is the same: altogether too much institutional latitude afforded to cops and prosecutors. Complaining about disparate impact won’t solve that.

  2. THIS is not going to make Toni Morrison happy.

    1. Her solution to this injustice would be to see that the laws are equally enforced against whites. That or shooting some white kids in the back.

      1. I was thinking sniping them on rooftops when they jaywalk.

        1. Are you a police officer? If not, your marksmanship is powerless in the fight for racial justice.

      2. You beat me to it.

    2. “When all who ride bikes are equally searched and mistreated by police the nation will be a post-racist society.”

  3. Poor people on bicycles can’t fight back in court, and there’s little that cops enjoy more than fucking with people who can’t fight back in court. As a former poor person who used bicycles for transportation, I know this for a fact.

    1. nah. this is more about a cop who saw something cool on the wire or some other show to get around the law to bust people he KNOWS are guilty… in his gut.

    2. The surge of pride they must feel TO SERVE AND PROTECT!

      Hey Tampa cops – you went to the Academy for this?!

      Put aside borrowed glories, and go back to bouncing at bad night clubs and working bar back at shot and a beer places.

  4. Unsurprising. They always go after poorer people for this horseshit because they can get away with it and they don’t have to worry about running into a lawyer.

    In Champaign-Urbana something like 85% of all people ticketed for jaywalking were black, despite the fact that you have a predominantly white college campus where kids will dart out in front of cars without paying the least attention.

    You can’t go after them though because daddy might own a law firm – best to go after the poor black people in the Urbana ghetto.

    1. Well that and schools have their own cops a lot of the time. You don’t patrol another law enforcements territory.

    2. I’d wager that white people are also far more likely to be effete helicopter parents demanding their children wear helmets (though I like to think that kids take that shit off the second they’re outta helicopter view). I also suspect far more poor people, and ergo minorites, are using bikes as a mode of tranportation whereas middle class white adults generally ride bikes as an exercise/leisure activity.

      But FFS, why does everything have to be viewed strictly as race race race. How about acknowledging how stupid these damn laws are to begin with? I have no problem with them pointing out the bias in the enforcement (though again the caveats that may provide an underlying rational other than merely transparent bias are not even considered or voiced). Credit to Doherty in that he leads with that. But of course the article, parading as a news piece while peppered with “analysis” seems unconcerned with such microtyranny so long as it’s equally slaving.

      1. Yes, focus on changing stupid laws, which highlights libertarian values, rather than on race which only serves to reinforce collectivist ‘values.’

    3. Urbana ghetto? Surely you meant Champaign.

  5. We’re also hell on pedestrians here. I think it’s one of the worst places for getting hit by a car in the country when crossing the road. Between drunks, strippers, and old people, I guess that’s not a surprise.

    Anyway, since we hate pedestrians, we probably hate bikers, too.

    1. I think most bike accidents happen on 41 in Gibsonton when the carnies are back in town. Over the years I’ve come close to hitting at least a dozen myself and it isn’t that uncommon to see someone lying on the side of the road. I’ve only actually seen someone get hit once and it was ugly.

      Ticketing bikers is like every other “revenue enhancer” that cities come up with. The poor are overwhelmingly targeted because they are the least able to fight against such nonsense and cities justify the nonsense by saying that they need the money to support programs that benefit the poor. They have to ticket the poor to help the poor. Works like a charm. Tampa has some really crappy politicians who keep getting elected because they tout the programs they support that are paid for by the people who are targeted who are the exact same people who keep voting these idiots back in office. And the circle will be unbroken.

      1. Carny folk are good folk.

        1. They are good folk but it’s a bitch playing dodge car with them. That section of road between Showtown Bar and the bar directly across the street from it requires some quick reflexes between mid October and mid April.

          1. I was just kidding. That’s something Homer Simpson once said. Carny folk scare me.

            1. It’s the cabbage smell, isn’t it?

  6. “One woman was walking her bike home after cooking for an elderly neighbor…. an officer flagged her down and issued her a $51 ticket for not having a light.”

    She didn’t need a light to walk, and since she wasn’t using the bike I’d posit that the officer decided to be an even larger jerk than usual.

  7. Nothing shitty and hideous on the periphery matters just as long as government feeds the hungry and provides free health care for those in poverty. The bloody clotted clods of all those mostly pauper bones and flesh stuck to the bottom of the loving government boots can, perhaps, be analyzed at a later date in a future fantasy. Let us continue moving toward the care-drenched utopia of even greater government pile ons, comrades. Caring for the poor and destitute has never felt more invigorating. Now, pass the Sterlet, ya Teton Socialist Gods.

    1. T?ton is French for tit.

    2. Teton Socialist Gods would be an excellent name for a band.

      1. Tetonic Knights. Or Tetonic Nights.

        1. All members must provide their own gear, including breastplates.

          1. Made of transparent aluminum!

            1. +1 Dale Bozzio

    3. Let us continue moving toward the care-drenched utopia of even greater government pile ons,

      I read that as “utulpa” of even greater government control.

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

    What fucking horseshit. How does pestering the elderly and indigent stop that “plague” again? And how long has this “PLAGUE” been going on? You’ve been cracking down on the area for THREE FUCKING YEARS!

    1. Think about how much worse the plague would be without the help of these wise physicians.

      1. “apply this poultice, and handful of leeches and your Plague will be fine!”


  9. It’s a terrible trap for the poor, set by local police.


  10. 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

    Statists…dedicated to squeezing every last bit of joy from life.

  11. The reason police were invented was to trap the poor.

    1. Police in America were invented to catch runaway slaves. Their purpose hasn’t changed.

  12. This is just part of the WOD. They’re stopping them to search them for drugs. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.

  13. I live in one of these neighborhoods and I have seen this going on for quite some time. There are some issues beyond racial profiling that I think people should be made aware of.

    The neighborhoods where this is occuring are largely African American neighborhoods and people in those neighborhoods use bikes for transport at a far far greater rate than most people in the city of Tampa. So some of this is selection bias based on income since most of these people would drive if they could afford it and believe me most people who can afford a car do not ride bikes in Tampa as its brutally hot and in fact dangerous.

    In addition these neighborhoods have narrow streets, few sidewalks and many cars parked on the street due to few parking spaces for those that do have cars. This makes for a very very dangerous situation especially during night time and on weekends in particular when bike traffic is very very heavy. I make it a point to basically crawl through the neighborhood in my car during early evening and night time because people on bikes can and often do come out of nowhere. and I can tell you from experience they are often quite young. This explains why they will in fact ticket you in these neighborhoods for being on a bike without lights and reflectors.

    Part One

  14. The fact that these areas have a very very high rate of deadly traffic incidents involving bikes and cars has been confirmed to me by people I know who work at the local hospital. I have also in fact seen many times people doing some of the things in this article; pulling mowers behind bikes, kids riding on handlebars etc and it is a legitimate safety issue in my opinion.
    I also can attest to the fact that the local drug dealers do in fact use bikes (I would legalize drugs) and theft is a problem.

    Are the police abusing the rules and enforcing them in a way that gives them the right to search people? They may well be doing that in some cases and the story of the elderly lady coming back from church is heartbreaking and rings true in some ways. I live right around the corner from one of the big churches and I see the magnificent church ladies in their glorious hats frequently on my jogs and they often invite me to join them for worship. All in all I would say these laws really need to be enforced in these neighborhoods for safety reasons even though they may appear to be nit picking. I am not sure how you tell the difference between enforcing them for safety reasons and abusing them to harass and soak the locals from looking at numbers

    1. People own their own bodies and should be able to use them however they wish. That includes the operation of a bicycle and the risks inherent thereof. Stealing from people at gunpoint does not make people safer, bocycles safer, does not solve the congestion issues you describe and in fact exacerbates the poverty that is the cause of adults using a bicycle as their primary means of transportation.

      1. I agree people do indeed own their own bodies and have the right to do what they will with them when it comes to drugs and risky behavior of other sorts. But this behavior also put me at significant risk as a driver since I will do everything I can to say avoid running over a kid on a bike who darts in front of me at night with another kid on his handlebars (this has happened).

        As for tickets and their effect on poverty I would only say this. You must have some sort of mechanism for enforcing basic traffic laws and tickets are indeed the best method for doing this. Simply asking people nicely will not work.

    2. How is towing a lawn mower dangerous?

      1. I in fact used to do this as a teenager and I see your point. It is indeed dangerous on these streets due to the pot holes and I have seen one being towed actually almost flip over and send the guy off his bike. I stooped to help him because he is actually my lawn guy and I often allow him to keep his mower in my garage when he finishes a lawn close to my house around dark because even he knows doing it at night is asking for trouble from the cops and in fact dangerous.

        1. Ohh – so your point is that, because the city can’t maintain the roads they become inherently dangerous so citizens must be punished?

  15. This is embarrassing. I can only imagine the pain and pressure of getting fines for non-crimes and then knowing that the unpaid fine will mean more future harassment.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.