Bikes and cops

What’s your view of selective enforcement of bike laws?

My dad is a retired detective. In college, I somehow hung out with all of the Criminal Justice majors, some of whom are friends to this day. Because those in law enforcement deal with bad guys and their victims on a daily basis, they have an interestingly skewed perspective on society, risk, and people. Many of my friends in law enforcement think I’m insane that (a) I ride my bike through ‘crime infested’ parts of cities and (b) I don’t carry a gun with me. Seriously.

My dad’s Master’s thesis was, in a nutshell, criminals get caught because they’re stupid. Consider Byron Williams last weekend in Oakland: He strapped body armor on himself and loaded up his mother’s pickup truck with guns and ammo, intending to start a revolution by murdering the staff at the ACLU and the Tides Foundation in San Francisco. As he drove towards San Francisco, the CHP pulled Williams over for speeding and erratic driving. After the stop, he started firing at the CHP officers with his handgun, a rifle and shotgun. That was the end of Williams’ weekend plans.

Maybe I’m just a little smarter than the average criminal, but something occurs to me: If I’m gonna pull something really really big, maybe I shouldn’t drive like an idiot on my way to the crime scene?

How to avoid arrest

Dale Carson is a former police officer and the son of an FBI special agent. Carson now runs a law firm in Jacksonville, Florida. He defends the criminal dirtbags that he and his dad used to arrest. It’s his firm belief that the majority of criminals are not people like Williams who plan major mayhem, but people who commit petty offenses who then get caught in the system with no real way out. Once you have an arrest record, with modern electronic bookkeeping that record stays with you for life, even if you’re acquitted.

Carson wrote his book Arrest-Proof Yourself to prevent that from happening to you. His thesis: most people are arrested or cited because they do something stupid and avoidable in front of the police.

Much of the advice is similar to what you’ll see in an ACLU “Know your rights” brochure, but Carson does it in a frank, no nonsense manner. If you want to avoid arrest, it’s not about being right, or correct – it’s about keeping your trap shut and dealing with any fine or court appearance later.

Bikes and law enforcement

Carson devotes a couple of pages in his books on bikes and the law. “One of the advancements in law enforcement that truly disgusts me,” he writes, “is the extension of vehicle laws to bicycles and the use of proactive policing techniques to pile felony charges onto children. Every criminal attorny in my city has cases of children arrested and jailed for such crimes as riding a bicycle at night without a light, riding without a helmet, and riding with their buddies on the handlebars. This enforcement is highly selective and never, ever occurs in wealthy neighborhoods. Poor kids are just Hoovered up into the system.”

Carson then mentions that these children are likely to mouth off at police, to flee the police and to flail around while being taken into custody. “This will get them charged with battery on top of the usual charges of fleeing and resisting.”

Selective enforcement

Carson’s advice: obey the law! But he notes: “This takes much of the fun out of riding bikes, which for most kids is their first taste of freedom from parents and an important stage in growing up. These bicycle laws were by passed to protect children’s safety. Unfortunately, the welfare state has an unfortunate tendency to morph into the police state. For police, bicycle safety laws have become another means of making more arrests.

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I believe we should ride lawfully and safely, but I’ve hinted before that I believe some bike safety and equipment laws are used in a discriminatory way to selectively harass certain segments of the population from using the public right of way.

Your thoughts on this and how to fix it?

Via a discussion about police and selective enforcement of bicycle laws over at


  1. The problems are much worse than you describe. Objective policing and the reporting of events have become increasingly obsolete and skewed by personal biases instead of professionalism. Selective enforcement is just another part of a larger problem. In my experiences, law enforcement refuses to address crimes by auto drivers and complaints causes the front line of enforcement to attack the credibility of complainants.

    How to repair deep seated biases? No clue…

  2. My rule of thumb is never, ever, ever disrespect a police officer—the honest ones don't deserve it, and the crooked ones won't be deterred. However, the definition of disrespectful behavior varies widely from person to person. I would consider even a polite rebuttal on the spot with references to specific sections of the state or municipal code to be a mild form of disrespect (unless I'd just been hit or nearly so, in which case I'd probably be too hysterical to give a darn for anyone's feelings), but I know people who would disagree and even consider such an exchange an important way to “educate” officers who are not familiar with the rights of and/or rules pertaining to bicyclists.

    Anyway, flouting the law in front of law-enforcement officers always struck me as particularly disrespectful to them, as well as an excellent way to antagonize the very people you may need to call upon in your defense in the future. Maybe riding through a red light or the wrong way down a one-way street really aren't “serious” violations, but they are the ones most often cited by complaining motorists, which suggests to me that they're the most common (or at least the most visible) violations and thus the ones for which you will most likely be targeted by police looking for something, anything, to nail a cyclist for. I think it's like those “routine traffic stops” that turn into chases, shootings, and/or drug busts. Is it at all fair, or even just, to be so targeted by the enforcers of the law? Heck no, but maybe you should have known better than to turn without signaling in a car full of cocaine at the intersection where the squad cars like to camp out.

    In a similar sense, I'd say that if you're going to participate in a ride known for violations of traffic, liquor, drug, and/or public decency laws and will mostly likely attract a heavy police presence, then you might want to make sure you have a headlight and avoid straying into the oncoming lane. It's probably best to assume that the officers are looking for any excuse to single out one or a few as an example. Don't be the person who gets arrested for not having a rear reflector.

  3. I realize now that my response strayed rather far from your original questions, for which I apologize. I guess I got on a roll there. I've not really articulated my thoughts on bikes and cops before now.

    My views on selective enforcement of bike laws is that it sucks and there's nothing we can do about it until enough people ride bikes that the rate of selective enforcement of bike laws matches (or should match) that of selective enforcement of motor vehicle laws, other than behave as model citizens when the police are around.

  4. No need to apologize: I seem to always go off on a tangent and end up in deep space somewhere (or follow a rabbit trail or whatever metaphor you like)…

  5. Personally my belief (and this extends well beyond bicycle law) is that we need far fewer laws, and we need to be absolutely rigid with enforcement of those laws that we do have. What we have now is essentially anarchy. What is the speed limit? – If you read the law, it says that the signs that are posted indicate the MAXIMUM speed that you can legally travel at, yet people travelling at a speed lower than that are seen as impeding traffic. Nobody really knows what the maximum legal speed on a road is. With cycling, we need laws that make sense – stopping at a stop sign does not make sense for a bicycle – yielding to other traffic does. Wearing a helmet is a good idea – should it be law? – If so, perhaps we should require helmet use in automobiles (far more people are killed by not wearing a helmet in a car than on a bicycle). Selective enforcement is a symptom of a set of laws which are poorly matched to behaviour and reality.

  6. I'm that guy who tries to educate police officers, elected officials, planners, bureaucrats, and others when an opportunity arises. Like any other people, some have open minds and are curious enough to listen. Others, however, have their attitudes toward cyclists hardened into concrete. Regardless, we have to seize those teachable moments because some of them bring results. If we don't try, none of them bring results. Yes, it's frustrating and sometimes slightly maddening. With law enforcement professionals, I think the ratio is about 50/50.

  7. I'm pretty scared of cops, mostly because I need a clean driving record for my job, and I have this fear that some silly violations will make that difficult. The first few months of cycling, I just rolled through stop and turns and generally did the safe but not-so-legal type of riding. Now I am usually a vehicular cyclist, following all the laws, so that I don't have to worry about tickets. I find it really annoying that not having a light, or not signaling in a place that's nearly impossible to do so (like downhill at 30mph on a safe slight turn) can get just as bad a penalty, if not worse, than doing the same thing in a car.

    How I cope, is that I get back at the officers. In my small city, they are well known for being the best law breakers out there, and there are constantly heated debates about the actions of the officers. I've called the cops on the cops twice now, with some success. The first time was while I was biking behind a police car, I could clearly see that they were surfing Facebook on their onboard computer while driving. I pulled up next to him at an intersection, asked for his name, and told him that I was going to report his inappropriate use of the computer while driving. He was scared sh!tless. Hopefully with my report to his boss he was reprimanded, but even if he wasn't, it hopefully made him realize that people watch the police very closely. Plus, I got an awesome power trip out of dishing out their scare tactics back to them.

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