The weather was gorgeous last Thursday around sunset, and there were plenty of people with bikes on Roosevelt near Pulaski in North Lawndale. Johnny Harris, 60, was cycling home on a Gitane road bike, while Thomas Chatman, 56, wore a straw fedora as he stood on the sidewalk with his hybrid, which had unfortunately caught a flat.
This location lies within the Chicago Police Department beat that’s arguably the worst place to ride a bike in the city. In addition to having a high incidence of violent crime, beat 1011—bounded by Roosevelt, Central Park, 15th, and the western boundary of the city—saw more tickets written for biking on the sidewalk than any other beat during both of the past two years. According to ticketing data provided by CPD via a Freedom of Information Act request, police wrote 124 sidewalk-riding citations last year, up from 112 in 2016.
Harris received one of them. He normally bikes in the street but said last year he’d steered onto the sidewalk to avoid potholes on a stretch of Roosevelt a couple blocks west of Pulaski when he was pulled over, searched, and hit with a $50 ticket. He indicated that he was unable to pay his fee, and as a result now has to go to a court hearing to resolve the situation.
Chatman told me he tries to follow the rules of the road and hasn’t received any citations, but he’s often witnessed officers stopping and frisking people on bikes in the neighborhood. “I think it’s about the police harassing people,” Chatman told me.
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In March 2017, Tribune reporter Mary Wisniewski uncovered massive bike ticketing discrepancies between majority-African-American and majority-white neighborhoods. Despite city officials’ promises to address the lopsided enforcement practices, this past February Wisniewski reported that little had changed. About 56 percent of bike tickets—the vast majority of which were issued for sidewalk riding—were written in black communities in 2017, while only 18 percent were written in white neighborhoods. Strikingly, that year police wrote 397 bike tickets in North Lawndale while—for the second year in a row—only five tickets were issued in Lincoln Park.
Black bike advocates have blasted the exponentially higher ticketing rates in communities of color as a major social justice issue, which discourages cycling among demographics that stand to gain the most from its health, mobility, and economic benefits.
At the June Mayor’s Bicycle Advisory Council meeting, CPD director of public engagement Glenn Brooks Jr. discussed a recent police analysis of 3,300-plus tickets for sidewalk biking. There he acknowledged that the numbers suggest police are using bike tickets, as well as motor vehicle stops, as a strategy to help intercept illegal guns and drugs in high-crime neighborhoods. He noted that that in each of the predominantly black and/or Latino areas with high ticketing rates, “we had a disproportionately high number of violent incidents,” according to a report by Streetsblog’s Igor Studenkov. Brooks added, “In communities that have a higher violence concentration, part of our violence-reduction safety strategy is vehicle enforcement.”
Brooks argued that he doesn’t believe racial profiling is an issue because the demographics of the people stopped by police reflect the ethnic makeup of the communities. He also indicated that he doesn’t see anything problematic about police enforcing traffic laws more aggressively in high-crime areas than in low-crime neighborhoods. In a follow-up e-mail, Brooks told me officers cannot do a search based on a traffic stop alone.
“An officer has to have probable cause in order to conduct a search,” Brooks said.
Alex Wilson, director of the education center West Town Bikes, was at the meeting. He said using bike ticketing as a strategy to conduct searches could contribute to “further animosity and mistrust towards the police” from the communities they serve: “Many of our youth already feel that they are profiled for being black or Latino, so this strategy only increases resentment towards the police.” He suggested that a better approach to fighting crime and improving community relations would be more beat cops patrolling on foot and bike. “When police are out of their cars and more approachable, they grow trust and confidence in the community,” said Wilson.
Active Transportation Alliance advocacy director Jim Merrell, who was also present at the meeting, said his group “strongly condemns any use of traffic enforcement to target specific members of our communities. . . . Active Trans supports the important work organizations engaged in police reform efforts and looks to their leadership on the best way to address this critical issue.”
South-side cycling advocate Angela Ford was upset by Brooks’s comments at the meeting that police used bike enforcement to facilitate searches, and said Mayor Rahm Emanuel should be held accountable during next year’s mayoral election. “This administration’s aggressive attack on African-American communities starts at the top. . . . Black Chicagoans have come to realize these completely racist policies will be the practices of all city departments until we have a new mayor.”
Aditi Singh, a staff attorney with the criminal justice reform group Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice, said the police department’s bike enforcement tactics don’t appear to be unconstitutional, but they are bad public policy. “The fact that they’re admitting to enforcing the law differently in different kinds of communities is shocking,” she said. “It does appear that the police are allowed to make pretext traffic stops, but what they’re admitting to is disproportionate minority contact.”
Singh noted that a recent ProPublica report found that Chicago automobile ticketing practices disproportionately impact African-Americans on the south and west sides, often sending residents into a spiral of fines, late fees, driver’s license suspensions, loss of employment, and loss of income. While bike tickets don’t lead to a license being revoked, she added that when police target cyclists in communities of color, there are other negative outcomes besides financial hardship. “It can impact your well-being when you feel that your every move is being watched and that you’re getting in trouble for things other people aren’t.”
Darryl Heard, 52, who works at a tire repair shop, is at risk for such enforcement. When I met him last week near Roosevelt and Kostner, which falls within beat 1011, he was biking to a convenience store to play the lottery, riding on the wrong side of the road. This practice is illegal and puts cyclists at risk for head-on collisions. But Heard said he’s ridden this way ever since December 2015, when a motorist fatally struck Robert Blount, 55, from behind at 15th and Kostner. Biking against traffic allows him to see oncoming cars.
Heard said he narrowly avoided a bike ticket recently when he was biking on the sidewalk, spotted a squad car, and quickly transferred to the street. I explained that statistics suggest that, as a North Lawndale resident, he’s about 80 times as likely to be ticketed for wrong-way biking or sidewalk riding than a person who lives in bike-friendly Lincoln Park, where such infractions are also common. “That ain’t fair,” he replied. “That’s just messed up.” v