Editor’s note: The editors of the Tampa Bay Times are sharing this exclusive report with the Florida Courier. Below is a condensed version of a special report that was published in the printed version of the Times on April 19.
BY KAMEEL STANLEY and ALEXANDRA ZAYAS
TAMPA BAY TIMES
TAMPA – If the tickets are any indication, Tampa residents must be the lousiest bicyclists in Florida.
They don’t use lights at night. Don’t ride close enough to the curb. Can’t manage to keep their hands on the handlebars.
In the past three years, Tampa police have written 2,504 bike tickets – more than Jacksonville, Miami, St. Petersburg and Orlando combined.
Police say they are gung-ho about bicycle safety and focused on stopping a plague of bike thefts.
But here’s something they don’t mention about the people they ticket:
Eight out of 10 are Black.
A Tampa Bay Times (TBT) investigation has found that Tampa police are targeting poor, Black neighborhoods with obscure subsections of a Florida statute that outlaws things most people have tried on a bike, like riding with no light and carrying a friend on the handlebars.
Tampa Police Department officers use these minor violations as an excuse to stop, question and search almost anyone on wheels. The department doesn’t just condone these stops – it encourages them, pushing officers who patrol high-crime neighborhoods to do as many as possible.
More than 10,000 tickets analyzed
There was the 56-year-old man who rode his bike through a stop sign while pulling a lawn mower. Police handcuffed him while verifying he had, indeed, borrowed the mower from a friend.
There was the 54-year-old man whose bike was confiscated because he couldn’t produce a receipt to prove it was his.
One woman was walking her bike home after cooking for an elderly neighbor. She said she was balancing a plate of fish and grits in one hand when an officer flagged her down and issued her a $51 ticket for not having a light. With late fees, it has since ballooned to $90. She doesn’t have the money to pay.
TBT analyzed more than 10,000 bicycle tickets Tampa police issued in the past dozen years. The newspaper found that even though Blacks make up about a quarter of the city’s population, they received 79 percent of the bike tickets.
Some riders have been stopped more than a dozen times through the years and issued as many as 17 tickets. Some have been ticketed three times in one day.
Targeted by TPD
It’s possible that Blacks in some areas use bicycles more than Whites. But that’s not what’s driving the disparity.
Police are targeting certain high-crime neighborhoods and nitpicking cyclists as a way to curb crime.
They hope they will catch someone with a stolen bike or with drugs or that they will scare thieves away.
“This is not a coincidence,” said Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor. “Many individuals receiving bike citations are involved in criminal activity.”
Many of the tickets did go to people with criminal records. And there are cases where police stopped someone under suspicious circumstances and found a gun or caught a burglar.
But most bike stops that led to a ticket turned up no illegal activity; only 20 percent of adults ticketed last year were arrested.
When police did arrest someone, it was almost always for a small amount of drugs or a misdemeanor like trespassing.
One man went to jail for refusing to sign a ticket.
Affluent areas overlooked
On Davis Islands, where Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn lives near baseball star Derek Jeter, police could issue multiple tickets. But they don’t. One recent night, TBT observed a couple leaving an ice cream shop on unlit beach cruisers and a cyclist riding along the dark coastline, visible only because of the reflectors on his pedals.
Only one ticket was written last year on Davis Islands. It went to a Black man.
The same goes for affluent Bayshore Boulevard, one of the city’s main biking destinations. Only one person got a ticket there last year. He, too, is Black.
“Each neighborhood has a unique set of issues,” Castor said. “What is a problem in one area of the city may not be in another. We have an obligation to address the individual issues that plague each neighborhood.”
For weeks, TBT asked Castor for an interview. But the police chief declined, instead providing written statements.
Mayor Buckhorn also declined comment.
ACLU, judge question validity of stops
TBT’s findings concern others – Hillsborough Circuit judges and the public defender, social rights advocates and some of the leading researchers in race and policing.
“You almost roll your eyes when you read the reports,” said Circuit Judge Tracy Sheehan. “Oh no, another bike stop, another kid riding on the handlebars, here we go. And certainly, we have laws and we should all follow the law, but it occurred to me the stops were all occurring in certain neighborhoods and with certain children, and not in my neighborhood, and not with the White kids.”
Joyce Hamilton Henry, director of advocacy for ACLU of Florida, wants to know: “If it’s not racial profiling, what is it?”
TBT found that the department has ticketed hundreds of Black bicyclists each year for more than a decade.
The racial breakdown of the tickets suggests police are using their discretion differently when it comes to bikes. For more serious traffic offenses, like failing to stop at a red light, Blacks in 2014 got only 11 percent of tickets. Bike tickets – 81 percent.
Performance review and ticket stops
Internal police department records show a sustained effort to encourage more bike stops as a means to reduce more serious crimes.
Officers get yearly “productivity reports,” calculating, in part, how many tickets they give. One personnel file detailed a “red grid patrol” in which officers are encouraged to “engage and identify offenders through street checks, bike stops and traffic stops.”
In another file, a supervisor told a new officer he should learn rarely-used traffic statutes. The fact that he wasn’t familiar with them was noted as a “significant weakness” in his 2012 performance review. The next year, the new officer impressed his bosses with his “dramatic increase” in “self-initiated activity.”
He wrote 111 bike tickets, the most in the department. All but four of the cyclists were Black.
To read the Tampa Bay Times investigative report in its entirety and Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor’s full statements, go to http://tbtim.es/biketickets.