Cyclists Claim Harassment by Seattle Police
Davey Oil was riding his bike up South Alaska Street toward Beacon Hill on August 31 after spending the day promoting the Bikery—a group that encourages cycling in Seattle—at the city-sponsored Car-Free Sunday in Columbia City. As Oil pedaled across Martin Luther King Jr. Way South, a long line of police cars rolled past him and Oil heard an officer's voice over a loudspeaker. "Hey you, pull over," the officer said.
Oil says he was reprimanded for riding more slowly than traffic and given a $103 ticket for not riding far enough to the right. Oil, a former bike ambassador for the Cascade Bicycle Club, says he knows the rules of the road and was stunned by the ticket. "I'm a trained cyclist, and I understand lane placement and when it's important to share a lane," he says.
However, Oil adds: "I think everybody who rides a lot has a story about getting pulled over for bullshit."
With the city spending at least $3 million a year to promote bicycling as a viable mode of transportation, there are more cyclists on the road than ever. In 2007, the Seattle Department of Transportation's downtown bicycle count tallied nearly 2,300 bike commuters, a 31 percent increase over 2000.
But even as the city promotes cycling, a growing number of riders are coming forward with complaints about antibike bias among Seattle Police Department officers.
"Every other week, we get an individual [with a complaint about SPD]," says David Hiller, advocacy director for the Cascade Bicycle Club. "It isn't an epidemic, but it happens with enough regularity that we'd like to see some changes." Hiller recommends that cyclists file complaints about officers with the Office of Professional Accountability (OPA), which investigates allegations of officer misconduct.
One 25-year-old cyclist, who wanted to remain anonymous, filed an OPA complaint last year after, he says, an officer pulled up beside him at a stoplight, asked him why he wasn't wearing a helmet, and then told him that the officer's "'not getting out of the vehicle and kicking your ass is a courtesy.'" The officer told investigators he didn't recall the incident, and the investigation went nowhere.
Another cyclist, 59-year-old Bill Bloxom, says he was forced off the road and almost hit by a patrol officer who claimed Bloxom had strayed too far into his lane. Bloxom e-mailed a complaint to SPD but never heard back.
Attorney Bob Anderton, who rides his bike to his downtown office every day, represents riders in personal-injury claims. He says while some officers pull cyclists over for legitimate reasons—helmets are required by law, and cyclists have to have front and back lights at night—there are plenty of cops out there who just don't understand cycling.
"I talk to quite a lot of people who get in accidents, and the police come and [give cyclists] tickets for things they shouldn't get tickets for," Anderton says. For example, he says, cyclists have complained about getting tickets for "following too closely" when cut off by a car.
Tensions between cyclists and cops came to a breaking point in July, when a frustrated driver plowed into a group of riders who were participating in a monthly Critical Mass protest ride through the city. Several participants were accused of assaulting the driver after he ran into the crowd of cyclists.
Lucy Morehouse, one of the cyclists injured in the incident, says she was initially pleased with SPD's response at the scene. But as the night went on, she says, "officers from SPD... treated me with disdain [and] suspicion. That was extremely upsetting. I'd just been hit by a car."
In the nearly four months since the incident, no one has been charged.
Seattle Police Department spokesman Sean Whitcomb—who worked bike patrol in the University District for two years—says he's surprised by cyclists' claims of mistreatment. "I guess I'm a little puzzled there seems to be this impression," Whitcomb says. "There's absolutely no antibike bias within the department."
Whitcomb also recommends cyclists files complaints with the OPA or ask for a supervisor at the scene of an accident.
With the city planning to add 150 new bike racks, 19 miles of new signed bike routes, and 90 miles of new bike lanes by 2009, cyclists are hoping SPD will start taking their concerns seriously.
"[The police] have to protect us when we need to be protected," says Cascade's Hiller. "If we can't trust that they will take crimes against bicyclists seriously, then we're on our own, and it's not a fun place to be when you're dealing with several tons glass and steel."