Cyclists' relationship with the local police has often been an uneasy one. We document the main problems below.
The companion page to this one is No Justice for Cyclists, which shows that while cyclists often get the third-degree from the police, motorists who injure or kill us often get off scot-free.
Police don't take complaints about harassment by motorists seriously, and rarely investigate such complaints.
Police even ignore more serious cases, such as the incident in which cyclist Jay Williams was hit by a hit-and-run driver, even though witnesses provided police with the license plate number of the vehicle. Despite pleading from Williams and his attorney, the police took no interest in or action on that case. (That is, not until a concerned citizen asked a city councilmember for help, and the councilmember asked the police chief for an explanation.) In the case of the drunk motorist who killed Tom Churchill, police sat on the case for nearly half a year, saying nothing more beyond that the case was "under investigation" when we asked. They turned the case over to the District Attorney's office only after a television news crew interviewed us about the fact that nothing had happened with the case for almost six months. (By comparison, when Cesilee Hyde killed an Austin police officer with her car, she was charged with a crime in only ten HOURS.)
Police often decline to file charges against motorists who injure or kill cyclists, even if the motorists were clearly at fault. (See No Justice for Cyclists.)
Police also go easy on cyclist-injuring motorists in other ways, such as failing to arrest motorists while charges are pending. (The police failed to arrest driver who ran a red light and killed Ben Clough).
While the police are taking it easy on motorists, they give cyclists the third degree. We've lost track of how many cyclists have been ARRESTED (not just ticketed, but ARRESTED) for minor infractions such as biking on the sidewalk downtown or biking without a helmet (back when the helmet law was in effect for adults). If you drove your car without wearing your seatbelt, you might expect to get a ticket, but you wouldn't expected to be arrested. It's a sorry state of affairs when you can get arrested for riding on the sidewalk on your bike but not for running a red light in and killing a cyclist with your car.
In another case, after a police car nearly sideswapped cyclist Tommy Eden, Eden caught up with the car and asked the officer to be more careful, pointing out that he could have been seriously injured by the police car. The officer didn't respond, so Eden asked for his badge number, and was arrested for doing so. (The City settled Eden's lawsuit out of court.)
Police provide biased information to the press. Also in the Ben Clough case, the police press release stated that the cyclist wasn't wearing a helmet. So the press dutifully reported that a helmetless cyclist died in a collision, implying that it was the cyclist's fault. What they neglected to mention was that the driver had run a red light to hit Ben. Why did they omit this crucial fact? Simple: The police didn't tell them. It wasn't in their press release.
Police drive recklessly. Reckless police officers have come close to injuring me on multiple occasions. Once a police officer passed cyclist Tommy Eden so close he nearly hit Tommy. When Tommy caught up to the officer, he asked for the officer's badge number, and was arrested for doing so. (The City settled Tommy's lawsuit out of court.) Below is Paul Aviņa's letter to the Austin Chronicle about speeding police officers.
Police make little effort to recover stolen bikes. When Rob D'Amico was doing research for an 11-26-99 Austin Chronicle article about bike theft, he didn't get much help from the local police. Here's what he had to say: "I also should add that the APD was not helpful at all with regard to my article. Their Public Information Office didn't return calls, promised to get information to me on what to do if your bike is stolen then never called back, and told me that no one at the department specialized in bike theft or had any special knowledge of it! A UTPD officer gave me the names of two APD officers who she says work on bike cases all the time...but you guessed it, neither of the detectives returned two phone calls each to their office. I probably should have been harsher on APD in the article, since I had quotes from people saying APD doesn't give a shit about bicyclists. When I talked to the head of their PIO office about my problems getting information, the attitude was, 'What do you want me to do about it?'"
The Austin Chronicle ran an article about police harassment of cyclists in 1997.
One reason that problems with the police exist is that they're not accountable to anyone. There's no citizens review board to examine reports of police misconduct, and due to a quirk between local and state law, most of the complaints against officers are kept secret by the police department and are not available to the public. [Update: Since this article was written, the City Council finally approved a weak oversight board that is so powerless it's almost superfluous.]
"Today I spotted yet another police car speeding in my neighborhood. It's roughly twice a week that I witness this happening, especially on Springdale Road, but the bastard that holds the record was this cop speeding through two school zones some time ago. Started off by the ghettos on Springdale, drove past the Airport intersection and disappeared in the distance, toward Seventh Street, dodging through traffic. He was easily doing 45, no sirens, no lights. Among other things, it's common for these guys not to stop at two-ways, not to use their turn-light signals, and speed, speed, speed. It really went out of control while James Fealy was in charge of this neighborhood station and still persists. I remember seeing young guys being searched on the streets during his tenure, the response to 911 calls over two hours late, and many of us being hit by burglars once a week, in addition to harassment calls and thieves being released on the spot, something like neighborhood terrorism. But that's another story. Have called both headquarters and the substation, and nothing has been done. Can I ticket these guys myself? "
Another site by Michael Bluejay...
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