2007-06-27 – Cyclists Ride Police Over – Villager

Cyclists ride the police over ‘bike blitz’ operation


By Alyssa Giachino

The fallout from the confiscation of chained-up bikes on the street by the Ninth Precinct continued on Tues., June 19, as East Village residents and bicycle advocates harangued unapologetic officers.

The “bike blitz” on May 30 saw two people arrested and dozens of bikes that were locked up on E. Sixth and 10th Sts. forcibly removed from poles and fences.

There are still contradictory reports on the total number of confiscated bikes, but according to Councilmember Rosie Mendez’s office, at least 50 bikes were removed, though only around 15 were taken to the precinct. Many bikes were returned to their owners on the spot when they produced keys to the locks. Some witnesses reported that bikes seized by police were handed over to people with little effort to prove ownership, meaning quick-witted bystanders may have picked some up for free.

Tempers flared at the Ninth Precinct’s final community council meeting before a summer recess. Bicycle movement representatives were dismayed by the police’s tactics, particularly in a neighborhood that has a high concentration of cyclists and where efforts have been made to improve relations between the cyclists and police.

A pivotal issue is whether police had posted fliers notifying bike owners in advance of the operation. Most reports from witnesses, community activists and bicycle advocacy groups indicate that no one in the neighborhood remembers seeing any notices.

“The Ninth Precinct really jeopardized community relations,” Caroline Samponaro of Transportation Alternatives told The Villager.

T.A. has praised the Ninth Precinct for its “exemplary” tagging program in which bikes that show signs of abandonment are given a two-week notice before police remove them.

“It’s great, in theory, because it’s a courtesy to cyclists, and abandoned bikes are a problem,” Samponaro said. Citywide, bicycle racks are often overflowing with bikes in active use, as well as rusting skeletons, forcing cyclists to use light poles or tree-pit guards. T.A. estimates there are 40 cyclists in the city for every bike rack spot, a scarcity that is likely magnified in the East Village where cyclists account for 15 percent of all street traffic.

Deputy Inspector Dennis De Quatro, the precinct’s commanding officer, defended the operation and said fliers had been posted. He suggested they may have been deliberately removed through “childish, mischievous acts.” Samponaro subsequently called the explanation “puzzling.”

At the meeting, De Quatro verbally sparred with Marilyn Appleberg, president of the 10th and Stuyvesant Sts. Block Association, over whether notices had been posted. De Quatro said residents should have posted notices themselves if they were concerned.

Appleberg initially supported the removal of abandoned bikes, particularly from the Abe Lebewohl Triangle fence outside St. Mark’s Church on E. 10th St. to allow for repairs and fresh paint. But at the community council, she said was outraged over the insensitive way police implemented the plan.

“The operation was totally inappropriate, totally hostile,” she said. “That kind of operation does nobody any good.”

De Quatro said, “If the critics want to bash me for it, I’ll take the criticism. But I will not apologize for responding to a community complaint. I will not apologize for enforcing the law.”

Lieutenant Robert Corocan, who ran the bike confiscation, also defended the police action, saying, “I’m just doing my job.”

At the meeting, Appleberg announced that she was severing her 20-year relationship with the precinct. In a letter to the editor in The Villager’s June 20 issue, she said she had unwittingly been sucked into a fight between the police and the bike movement.

“I will now very consciously and deliberately remove myself from that battlefield,” she wrote.

Councilmember Mendez said she is working with the precinct to understand what happened. Though De Quatro reported that notices were posted a week prior, Mendez said, “In my experience, you have to repost them after a couple of days” because they get ripped down or damaged.

“We’re trying to work out a balance between bicyclists, community needs and the police response and have better communication on all sides,” she said.

Aside from the Ninth Precinct’s policy on abandoned bikes, the city has no legislation that specifically governs the matter. For the past few years, the city has interpreted a section of the administrative code, Section 16-122(b), which categorizes abandoned merchandise and cars under sanitation rules. The regulation doesn’t specifically mention bicycles.

To clarify things, legislation was introduced in the City Council last year to implement a tagging program citywide that would allow for the confiscation of bikes locked to street poles and fences that aren’t removed within 36 hours. The proposal could still be amended, including a push to extend the time frame to 72 hours.

Ed Ravin, a board member of the Five Borough Bike Club, suggested that revised legislation could place responsibility with the Department of Sanitation, in order to “free up the police for more pressing matters.”

He added that in the East Village, where most of the apartments are walkups, it is impractical to expect cyclists to store their bikes in their apartments, and that providing adequate notice of cleanup sweeps of bikes on the street is essential.