Aggressiveness of Bike Chases Stirs Questions for the Police
New York Times
February 24, 2006
The patrol guidelines for the Police Department strongly urge officers to be careful when chasing suspects with cars, and national studies show that accidents involving police vehicles result in one death nearly every day.
Yet since August 2004, the New York police have regularly conducted aggressive pursuits in the heart of the most crowded city in the country.
Police vehicles have driven the wrong way down busy Midtown streets and have cut at sharp, brake-screeching angles across Greenwich Village avenues, videotapes show. They have climbed onto sidewalks to skirt traffic jams near Grand Central Terminal, according to witnesses. Officers have been filmed driving a large sport utility vehicle along the Hudson River bicycle and jogging path.
On all these occasions, police officers in vehicles have been chasing bicycle riders who throng the streets on the last Friday of every month in a group ride known as Critical Mass. The dispute over the terms of the ride has swelled into bitter court fights and what have been, by New York standards, street chases of startling character.
The police and the city say public safety is at stake because the bicycles block traffic and the riders will not agree to a route. Many riders say the stakes are free movement on public streets for people who should not have to get police permission simply because they are not in cars.
Earlier this month, a state judge rejected the city’s request to shut down the event and counseled “mutual de-escalation of rhetoric and conduct.”
At last month’s ride, two police officers on lightweight motorcycles were injured as they maneuvered into position to cut off the bicycle riders on Third Avenue.
“One of the motorcycles made an abrupt 90-degree turn, and the one behind just T-boned him – hit him perpendicularly,” said Luke Son, a bicycle rider who said he saw the crash happening from a few feet away. “A really violent collision. The officer in front went flying.”
Mr. Son, 23, a student at Columbia University and an emergency medical technician, began treatment of one of the officers.
Paul J. Browne, the Police Department’s chief spokesman, said that the officers were not seriously hurt and that the accident was provoked by bicycle riders who were breaking the law. It “would not have occurred if Critical Mass participants observed the law,” Mr. Browne said.
A number of riders said the crash touched off an especially forceful effort by the police to round up cyclists. Later that night, witnesses say, police officers in two black sport utility vehicles chased 12 to 20 riders near Grand Central Terminal. One of them, Mark W. Read, said that the police drove against traffic on a one-way street, most likely Vanderbilt Avenue, and that as bicycles moved west along 45th Street, one S.U.V. followed them.
“The S.U.V. went up onto the sidewalk and drove on the sidewalk for 15 or 20 feet, then dropped back onto the street,” said Mr. Read, 38, a filmmaker and adjunct instructor at New York University, whose account was first reported in The Village Voice. “It was unbelievable â€” a high-speed chase, something you think would be reserved for serious criminals, for people fleeing a murder scene or bank robbery.” Mr. Read was later arrested on 43rd Street and Broadway and charged with parading without a permit.
Mr. Browne declined to comment on any specific chase, saying in general that the descriptions “are the exaggerated, self-serving statements of individuals engaged in breaking the law or opposed to police enforcement of it.” Asked about videotapes that show the chases, he said that he stood by his comments.
The department’s guidelines say that before starting a pursuit, officers should consider the nature of the offense and how crowded the area is. The guidelines also include an instruction, highlighted in bold type, that says, “Department policy requires that a vehicle pursuit be terminated whenever the risks to uniformed members of the service and the public outweigh the danger to the community if suspect is not immediately apprehended.”
One police spokesman said that applies to the pursuit of motor vehicles, not to bicycles; Mr. Browne would not comment on that interpretation. The bicycle riders generally are charged with offenses like parading without a permit that are violations of the city’s administrative code, which are not included in the state’s penal code of felonies and misdemeanors.
At a Critical Mass ride on Sept. 30, bikers rode up Second Avenue, and turned east onto 14th Street, followed by two police S.U.V.’s. On a videotape, some of the bikers can be seen riding east in the westbound lanes, against oncoming traffic; the two police S.U.V.’s also can be seen driving in that lane, for part of 14th Street between Second and First Avenues.
John Hamilton, an in-line skater who videotaped the chase, said the sight of the S.U.V.’s driving the wrong way down 14th Street was vivid. “It was a very dangerous situation, and I certainly felt it,” Mr. Hamilton said.
Mr. Hamilton also filmed a chase on March 25, 2005, in which a police S.U.V. drove across a pedestrian island on West Street and followed the cyclists onto the Hudson River bicycle path for about a mile. “The S.U.V. ultimately had to stop because there were metal posts or cones on the path,” he said.
Shortly after the motorcycle collision, on Jan. 27, Rebecca Heinegg, 23, arrived and recognized one of the injured officers. “He was my arresting officer last February, and was as nice as someone arresting you can be,” said Ms. Heinegg, a law student. “This incident is really sad, an entirely predictable result of the unsafe maneuvers.”
Mr. Browne said the Police Department had tried to make the ride safe. “If they provide their route in advance and want our assistance in expediting the ride each month, the Police Department will be happy to assist,” he said.
Copyright 2006, New York Times