Tampa Cops’ “Bike Safety” Campaign Reeks of Racial Profiling

Police in Tampa appear to be using the guise of "bike safety" to stop and question low-income blacks. Photo: Tom Woodward via Flickr
Under the guise of “bike safety,” police in Tampa are stopping and searching black residents. Photo: Tom Woodward via Flickr

Over the weekend, the Tampa Bay Times blew the lid off a major police harassment story: Cops there issue more tickets to cyclists than in any other big Florida city, in the name of “bike safety,” but what their targets appear to be most guilty of is bicycling while black.

Network blog Systemic Failure flagged the Times’ investigation, calling it “beyond belief” and noting that the ticket blitz “actually made the streets more dangerous for cyclists.”

Tampa police, report Alexandra Zayas and Kameel Stanley, are out in poor neighborhoods ticketing old ladies who have the audacity to ride home from dinner with a plate of grits on their handlebars. The ticket blitz is part of a systematic harassment campaign:

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.

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.

Selective, discriminatory enforcement of bike laws is hardly limited to Tampa. Researchers have shown that sidewalk riding tickets in New York are concentrated in predominantly black and Latino neighborhoods. And the Dallas Morning News produced a report about uneven enforcement of the city’s helmet law last year. Partly in response, the city dropped mandatory helmet rules for people over 18. Hopefully Tampa authorities will be moved to similarly swift action.

Meanwhile, Tampa has a very serious traffic safety problem. If the city wants to get serious about protecting its citizens, incorporating more humane street designs and ramping up enforcement of speeding and failure to yield to pedestrians are good places to start.

Elsewhere on the Network today: Forward Lookout explains how Wisconsin is lighting the fuse on a debt-fueled “highway bomb” that will blow up once current elected officials are out of office. Mobilizing the Region reports that New Jersey is preparing to raise transit fares once again while holding the gas tax steady. And Transportation for America has some pointers for cities planning to throw their hats in the ring for the latest round of TIGER grants.

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