Despite orders from Patrol Chief, SDPD continues its culture of negligence against bicycle riders

Almost a year ago, after months of correspondence, Assistant Chief of Patrol Operations issued a memorandum to all SDPD Patrol and Traffic Officers on how to properly enforce laws pertaining to bicycle riders. This document ensured that officers would be aware that bicycle riders were legitimate users of the road, (at least until the regional and national elected officials decide to dedicate funding to ensure we have a safe and protected space to ride in), and that all riders were also citizens deserving of equal protection and care by those whose job it is to protect and serve.

However this year I’ve been informed of two incidents that indicates a level of disrespect from SDPD officers that is shameful and appalling.

On March 8, local advocate and law school student, Timur Ender, was harassed by an SDPD Officer while riding his bike on Imperial Boulevard near 22nd Street. In an email sent to William Lansdowne, Chief of Police and the entire City Council, Ender detailed the entire incident.

At 11:15 a.m. on March 8th during broad daylight I was riding my bicycle on Imperial Blvd near 22nd street.  I was lawfully operating my bicycle four feet to the left of parked cars in order to avoid car doors opening suddenly into my path.

As I was riding I heard a car honk aggressively at me 2 times lasting 4 seconds each time.  I was quite surprised to turn around and notice it was a marked San Diego police cruiser.  Aware that I was doing nothing illegal and noticing that his emergency lights were not activated, I saw no reason discontinue riding.

Next, the officer revved his engine and positioned his moving police cruiser within several inches of my left leg.  I found this gesture to be quite intimidating as I was on a bicycle.  The officer then proceeded to yell things out of the window to me.  I was not able to discern his exact words other than they were along the lines of “get off of the road”.

I asked the officer to please stop harassing me and if he had a problem to please pull me over so we could talk instead of  him yelling out the window to me.   He then honked at me again and continued honking as he drove away.

A few seconds later I caught the officer at the traffic light in front of SDPD Central substation and I asked him to pull over.

After he pulled over I explained to him that I found his behavior of honking and trying to run me off of the road with his cruiser to be very problematic and that I wished to talk to his supervisor.

He stated I was being “arrogant and cocky”.  I replied to him that I had no intention of arguing with him and I would appreciate it if he called his lieutenant.  This is when I identified the officer to be Sergeant Mike Gordon.

Sgt. Gordon then stated I was impeding traffic and again, being “arrogant and cocky”.  I told him I appreciated his opinion of me and directly asked him whether my actions were in violation of the law, to which he correctly replied “no”.

He then gave me his lieutenant’s phone number to call and pulled into the substation.

Ender called Sgt. Gordon’s supervisor Lt. Mitchell who said that he would talk to Sgt. Gordon.

Like the two previous incidents covered here, Ender has been taught the laws that relate to riding a bicycle through a course promoted by the League of American Bicyclists.

On March 19th, after hearing nothing back from the SDPD, I contacted Lt. O’Hanlon, Councilmember David Alvarez (because the incident occurred in his district) to inquire what the SDPD was doing to prevent such incidents in the future.

On March 22nd, Martha Zapata from Councilmember Alvarez’s office responded to Ender as follows,

Our Chief of Staff, Travis Knowles, has been in contact with the Chief of Police, William Lansdowne. According to Chief Lansdowne someone from his staff should have already contacted you.  Nevertheless, I would like to inform you that in talking to the Chief we have been informed that there are plans to implement a cycling education program. The goal of the program would be to better inform police officers on the laws governing bicyclists on the roads. Such a program would likely raise awareness of the rights of bicyclists and address many of the issues you experienced when dealing with the police.

As the Councilmember is an avid bicyclist himself, he is sensitive to the fact that the City must improve its handling of shared roadways.

She further stated that Ender could be proactive and voice his concerns at a public hearing,

One is the Captain’s Advisory Board meeting that takes place every other month on the fourth Tuesday of the month at 2501 Imperial Avenue at 5:30PM. This is an open meeting where residents meet with the precinct’s Captain and  some of the officers who patrols the area and bring up issues related with safety, and other concerns that residents feel need support with. The remaining dates for year 2012 are:
March 27
May 22
July 24
September 25
November 27

Ender then attended the March 27th meeting and reported back as follows:

I went to the Captain’s advisory meeting today and raised some of my concerns.  They seemed open to dialogue but at the same time didn’t really understand the issues relating to cycling.

The captain told me with a straight face that it was my responsibility to stay out of the way of motor vehicle traffic at all times, to ride in the door zone, and that if I was in his way, he would have honked at me too.  It took me a few minutes to pick my jaw up off of the ground.   Essentially, what he said was “cyclists have a right to the road as long as they stay out of the way”

He also didn’t seem to understand how revving the engine, positioning a patrol car to be within inches of me, honking, and yelling out the window constituted harassment.

I tried to explain to him that it is unsafe for cyclists to ride in the door zone and look inside every car to see if there is someone in the driver’s seat and at the same time be mindful of other hazards on the road but he said “I ride a bike too, and I have no problem looking into cars to see if someone is in the car. I have good peripheral vision”  I tried to explain to him that hundreds of cyclists have been killed riding there but he didn’t seem to buy it.  This mindset that cyclists are supposed to ride in the door zone is extremely concerning.

Like I told the Lieutenant at the meeting, we don’t need funding or resources to solve this problem, we need a different mindset on how the department views cyclists.  This will be best accomplished through a training module similar to the one instituted with the LAPD last year.

When I subsequently spoke with Lt. O’Hanlon he stated that because Ender and the Sergeant had an opportunity to voice their concerns there was nothing further to be done. He emphasized that he would ensure that the patrol officers would enforce the rules of the road but mandating a training to all the patrol officers would be challenging because of a lack of funding and personnel issues. But he stated that he was open to suggestions on how best to handle these issues.

A few days ago on bike to work day, Catrine Machi, experienced a similar level of negligence from another officer. In a letter she sent to Chief Landsdowne, she describes both the crash and the subsequent lack of care from the SDPD officer who arrived at the scene of the crash:

I am writing to report an incident and inquire about how it was handled by the responding officers.

At about 3:30 pm on Friday, May 18th, which happened to be Bike to Work Day, I was riding my bike northbound on 30th Street. I had just crossed El Cajon Blvd and was approaching the bus stop adjacent to the Carl’s Jr drive-thru when a man jumped into the travel lane and my right-of-way with his legs and arms outstretched and knocked me off my bicycle. While I was on the ground he laughed loudly and said, “That’s what you deserve.” He then walked away in a casual manner.

I got up, moved onto the sidewalk and assessed the situation. I could move everything, was not bleeding heavily and my bike was still functional. I looked around to see if anyone had witnessed this event. Coincidentally, there was a fire truck parked across the street and a fireman had seen me go down out of the corner of his eye. They confirmed I was ok and offered to radio for a police officer. I agreed and said I wanted to make a report and requested ice for my elbow. Additionally, another man who had witnessed the crash also approached and informed me that his wife had called 911. He added that just prior my crash the same guy had run out against the light into the intersection of El Cajon and 30th and jumped onto the hood of a car.

Within five minutes a squad car arrived and two officers approached to hear my story as and those of the witnesses. The police officers told me they would not take a report. I pressed, asking why that wasn’t considered assault and they said it was because I ran into the man and fell. The officers said they would keep an eye out for this man, but that was the extent of their follow up. The firemen also patrolled the area for a bit looking for him as well. The man was African American, roughly 5’5”, 140 lbs, was wearing a blue striped polo shirt that was and had on black jeans. He had short hair and looked to be 20-30 years old.

As the evening progressed, the range of motion of my elbow became increasingly limited which forced me to visit the emergency room. Upon visiting the emergency room Saturday morning, I learned I had a fractured radius.

I would like to understand why the police officers I talked to did not take a report or consider what happened assault, battery or really, anything.

Machi has now followed up with Councilmember Todd Gloria’s office. I will post an update if I learn of anything new.

But the issue still remains outstanding. How do we get our law enforcement to treat those who ride a bicycle, either by choice or necessity, fairly and without bias?