Police Records Detail Large Presence at Critical Mass Rides
New York Times City Room
October 20, 2010
By J. David Goodman
Cyclists and advocates connected to the monthly rides known as Critical Mass have long charged the police with responding to the unsanctioned events with a display of force far out of proportion to the number of riders or their potential danger to the public.
These charges and countercharges have led riders and the New York Police Department to face off in court on numerous occasions, including a federal lawsuit that the city settled with riders on Monday for nearly $1 million.
In the course of that suit, internal documents (see also below) surfaced that outline police preparations for Critical Mass and offer the fullest picture yet of the magnitude of those monthly mobilizations. They show that from 2004 to 2006, the department regularly authorized overtime for hundreds of officers, gathered scores of scooters and sent up helicopters on several occasions over the streets of downtown Manhattan â€œto combat illegal activity associated with the Critical Mass bicycle ride from Union Square Park.â€
Two days before a ride in October 2004, for instance, the response plan included 547 officers, 81 sergeants, 29 lieutenants and a dozen captains. To track the fast-moving ride, the department employed a helicopter and more than 100 scooters and bicycles. Some of the officers were organized into arrest teams, according to the documents, which outline preparations for mass arrests that included 20 buses â€œto transport prisoners and property.â€
The documents â€” known as detail requests, signed by Assistant Chief Bruce H. Smolka and corresponding to rides from October 2004 to February 2006 â€” show that the department also sought the involvement of its organized crime unit and advice from its deputy commissioner for counterterrorism.
Cycling advocates said that the documents proved how the police responded to a mouse â€” in this case, what the documents call an â€œunstructured eventâ€ that â€œdraws several hundreds of ridersâ€ â€” with a elephant-size trap. City Room has made several requests for comment from the police and will update when the department responds.
While the suit did not reveal documents from before October 2004, a video posted this month by Timeâ€™s Up, the bike advocacy group closely associated with the rides, depicts a vastly different relationship between riders and police in May 1999. On at least that occasion, officers can be seen pedaling bicycles with the Critical Mass group as well as holding traffic so the ride could pass through intersections unimpeded.
Those more cordial times appear to have stopped abruptly after the Republican National Convention in 2004, when protesters clashed with the police during Critical Mass. From that point, the department began to step up its response significantly, according to the documents and interviews with Critical Mass participants.
Once the new response plan was drafted in late 2004, it remained largely the same each month, though it was scaled back as participation in Critical Mass declined. That would have been standard procedure for a regularly scheduled event. â€œBasically you go on past practice,â€ said Jon Shane, professor of police policy and practice at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a former Newark police officer. â€œYou pull out last yearâ€™s parade plan.â€
While the documents do not include the costs associated with the response, its vast scope and repeated deployment raised questions about how much money the department spent over that time to issue moving violations and quality-of-life citations to cyclists. The cost of such repeated operations probably dwarfed Mondayâ€™s settlements, which totaled $965,000, Professor Shane said.
â€œTrust me, it adds up really fast,â€ he said. â€œWhen we used to look at parade expenditures at various community events, it skyrockets really fast.â€
A 2006 cost analysis by Timeâ€™s Up and Charles Komanoff, the former head of Transportation Alternatives, estimated that the department spent roughly $1.3 million between August 2004 and September 2006 to police Critical Mass. Mr. Komanoff, who has seen some of the police detail documents that emerged recently, said that they confirmed his methodology and his findings.
The size of the operation steadily diminished as the reported number of cyclists participating in Critical Mass dropped off. When cyclists gathered in Union Square on Feb. 24, 2006, the department prepared just 78 officers, with a police helicopter on standby. Currently, the rides attract no more than a few dozen cyclists.
â€œI think they show the Police Department going from very small details of officer assigned to assist the rides to these huge details designed to make mass arrests and send the message that people shouldnâ€™t be participating in the rides,â€ said Gideon Oliver, a lawyer for the cyclists in the recently settled federal suit. â€œItâ€™s not every detail request that the Police Department assigns mass arrest teams.â€