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Right on Green, Part 1

February 9, 2015

First, a disclaimer: I sometimes go through red lights. Shocking, I know.

But a couple of points to tease out the details of that disclaimer:

1. I believe that laws for bikes need to be updated to reflect the fact that they are not cars, that resources ought to be deployed according to the threat, and that infrastructure — not punitive enforcement — will ultimately change behavior. But going through a red signal is still illegal, so that’s that. If I ever go through a red light and am stopped by the police, I’ll say I’m sorry, accept a ticket without argument, and pay the fine promptly.  I also have no desire to be one of those entitled cyclists who thinks it’s a massive injustice that he got caught doing something that everyone knows is illegal. My face on a Gothamist post with 816 comments? I’ll pass.

2. Although I occasionally go through red lights, I most certainly would never knowingly do so in the presence of a police car, no matter how safe the intersection. I don’t have a lot of love for the 5th Precinct’s penchant for ticketing cyclists at low-stakes T intersections, but I also don’t have a lot of sympathy for cyclists who get caught there. It’s not as if the cops are hiding behind a bush.

3. I never run red lights on 5th Avenue in Park Slope. First, some of the cross streets are set in such a way that it’s hard to see around the corner. Second, it’s a busy, narrow street that’s teeming with cars, buses, delivery trucks, and people on foot and on bikes, making it a bad candidate for any sort of Idaho Stop Law treatment most times of the day. Third, as a stroller-pushing papa who frequently takes his kids around the neighborhood on foot, I know all too well the experience of having someone on a bike come at you even at a distance he or she thinks is safe. Do unto others and all that.

So please keep those things in mind as you read the rest of this post. Read them again every now and then if it helps. Now on with the show…

I received a ticket after making a right turn on a green light.

Now, the officer who ticketed me didn’t write me a ticket for that; he accused me of going straight through a red signal in flagrant violation of the law — and, as you’ll soon see, the rules of time and space — but the truth of the matter is that I made a right turn on a green light and then received a red light ticket from an officer from the 78th Precinct.

Here’s what happened.

On Friday, January 31st, 2014, I rode my daughter, as I did nearly every day last school year, from our old apartment on 4th Avenue and Baltic to her pre-K on Lincoln Place between 5th and 6th Avenue. Our ride took us up St. Johns place, right on 6th, and then about half way down Lincoln Place to pre-K. A classroom sign-in sheet has me walking in at 8:30 AM to leave her with her teachers. I kissed her goodbye, left the building, and hopped on my bike, taking off down Lincoln Place.

The light ahead was red and there were a few cars stopped waiting for it to change. The bike lane on Lincoln Place is on the left side of the street and I needed to turn right, so I merged behind a car and waited too. When the light changed, the cars began moving and I slowly turned right onto 5th Avenue. Here’s the route:


As I turned the corner, I saw flashing lights coming from a car parked against the flow of traffic on the east side of 5th Avenue. A woman with a bike was stopped next to the car, so I figured it was one of two things: an officer responding to a crash or a red-light ticket sting. I stopped, saw that the woman was okay, and took this picture:


5th Ave and Lincoln Place looking southbound.

If you follow me on Twitter, you’ll know that I frequently take pictures of cops ticketing cyclists. If you follow constitutional law, you’ll know that taking pictures of cops ticketing cyclists is not a reason for the cops to then pull you over. Nevertheless, I continued northbound on 5th toward Bergen Street to make my way to work. But then I heard it: “CYCLIST, PULL OVER.” Okay, I thought. Taking a picture of a police officer is not a crime and I’ve done nothing wrong. I stopped in front of Gorilla Coffee at Park Place and 5th Avenue, about four blocks from Lincoln Place.

The officer exited his car and demanded to see my ID. I initially refused, and instead demanded to know what the officer thought I had done. He once again demanded to see my ID. Once again, I refused. I can’t say that I was as cool or calm as I could have been, but I also know that the police can’t just stop a person and ask for identification without saying why. I refused again, and demanded to know what the officer thought I did. At this point he told me that he observed me running a red light and that he would arrest me if I did not provide him with my identification. I told him that I did not run a red light, but he said he saw me go straight through the light on 5th Avenue, which would have had me traveling from a direction from which it would have been impossible for me to travel, given the location of my daughter’s daycare and my normal route to work. Here’s what he said I did:


For orientation, the officer’s car was parked along the curb next to the Chase Bank on 5th Ave when he said he saw me riding northbound on 5th before going straight through a steady red signal. Never mind that he was alone and occupied with ticketing another person on a bike, he said he saw me go through a red light. I pointed to my bicycle –a big, upright black Dutch bike with child seat in the back  — and said that he most certainly did not see me run a red light, since I had just dropped my daughter off on Lincoln Place.

At that point, the officer said that the woman he had been ticketing back at Lincoln Place told him that I had run the same red she did. I found this hard to believe, since, in case you’re just joining me, I DIDN’T RUN A RED LIGHT. She might have run a red light while going northbound on 5th Avenue, but I didn’t, nor could I have.  I told the officer that he wasn’t telling the truth. He said that he was. I then told him that for all I knew the woman was just intimidated and told him what he wanted to hear.

I want to be pretty clear here: I probably came across to this officer as a total asshole, that same kind of entitled cyclist I wrote about in my disclaimer, above. Stopped and threatened with arrest for not providing an ID and for running a red light I didn’t run? I never swore or lost my temper, but I definitely gave this officer a piece of my mind. I also must recognize the privilege aspect of this: I’m a white male who was stopped in Park Slope. Yelling at a cop and not immediately complying with an order isn’t probably going to land me in cuffs, at least not right out of the gate, so every choice I made was filtered through that knowledge.

At that moment, the woman who he had been ticketing back at Lincoln Place rode by on her bike. She had a striped scarf on, which you can kind of see in the picture above. The officer pointed at me and yelled to her, “Did he run a red light?” The woman, just as she passed, screamed, “NO!”

It didn’t matter. He demanded to see my ID again. Finally, I complied. I was no dummy. This cop wanted to write me a ticket, and I knew I’d have to make my case in court. I also didn’t want to wind up in jail; knowledge of the law and one’s rights can be cold comfort if you’re arrested by a cop who somehow thinks you did something you couldn’t have done. So I handed the cop my ID and he went back to his car. He returned with a ticket:


As you can see, the ticket says that I was going “N/B on 5th Ave @ Lincoln Place.” Just a quick reminder: I was going westbound on Lincoln Place, before turning right onto 5th and the light was green. The time written on the ticket is 8:44 AM. This is my first ticket in 17 years of riding a bicycle in New York City, and it’s for something I didn’t even do.

Anyway, both the officer and I parted ways. I headed to work, as I often do, via the Manhattan Bridge. As I arrived on the Manhattan side, I saw the Transportation Alternatives bike ambassadors doing one of their outreach sessions, giving out coffee and signing up new members. I stopped and told Luke, one of the ambassadors and now TA’s Brooklyn Outreach Coordinator, about my ticket. “A woman just came through here and signed up for membership because she said she had been ticketed, too,” he said. “Must have been the same officer.” I asked if this woman was wearing a dark jacket and a long striped scarf. Luke said yes.

So my wheels started spinning. Realizing TA couldn’t violate this woman’s privacy by giving me her contact information, I asked Luke if he would do me a favor and give her mine. He said that he would email her when he got to the office.

The next day, I got this email from the woman in the striped scarf, the one who had screamed “NO” when the officer asked her if I had run a red light:

Hi Doug,

Luke from TA forwarded your contact info yesterday. I was ticketed yesterday morning while riding up Fifth Avenue (at Lincoln Place). A number of cyclists passed while I was being written up and the officer caught one right behind me but not others.
The same officer continued north and I passed him talking to a cyclist outside of Gorilla Coffee. I’m sorry if that was you and if I had anything to do with your ticket. I did say aloud that you didn’t run a red light. I had a green and white striped scarf.
Good luck.
I wrote back and told her the circumstances of my ticket. It most certainly was not her fault. Here is part of her follow-up:

Hi Doug,

In your case, the officer was sitting in his car facing me or south when you rode by. He only saw you bike by; he didn’t see you run the red. However, because the light on Fifth Ave was red, he inferred that you ran the red, since myself and two other subsequent cyclists did exactly that.
I’m disappointed that he would write you a ticket that isn’t based on his own observations; this seems very wrong and also embarrassing. I can’t imagine a police officer backing down to admit fault so I would be happy to testify for your case.
As for me, I told him I left my wallet at home and didn’t have identification on me. He threatened to arrest me for not having ID, and I ended up showing him a photograph of my passport that was stored on my phone. Could you ask your attorney & TA volunteer whether a ticket without driver’s license is valid? I was told that it couldn’t be entered in the system; it does have my name and address however. I’m grateful for any response.
I forwarded her some names and contacts and thanked her for her help. Not too long after that, I submitted a plea of not guilty to the DMV.
In Part 2, I’ll pick up the story where it continues, one year later. Yes, one year later.
  1. Zack Rules permalink
    February 10, 2015 9:40 am

    I live in DC and while Metro Police are not as blatantly bad down here, I do occasionally catch them driving on bike trails (it is a lazy shortcut to the gas pump). I usually request names and badge numbers and occasionally report them to the Office of Police Complaints, but am tempted to start an online list of repeat offenders. At the very least, reporting repeat offenders names and badge numbers might make folks more aware of bad behavior.

  2. Get it to together 78th precinct. permalink
    February 10, 2015 10:16 am

    This is truly infuriating.

    I know there are all kinds of problems in comparing various forms of injustice done to specific groups but once again we see that bike commuting is the circumstance where privileged white people from Brownstone Brooklyn have the opportunity to come closest to having an NYPD harrassment experience similar to what young black men must have every single day. To be sure, if Doug were a young, black male he’d have probably never gotten away with any sort of back-talk to that officer. He’d have been put in cuffs, or jail or much much worse. NYPD needs to get a clue and realize that this sort of small-bore harassment, lying and injustice diminishes the public’s respect for the police more than anything.

    • Alex permalink
      February 10, 2015 5:38 pm

      You are spot on. I know there’s sensitivity around that comparison, but I really do think it’s accurate in the way you describe it. Being on a bike is a tiny taste of the way cops treat people differently based on superficial judgements.

      And I really think there’s a good chance the cop was punishing Doug for taking that picture. He knew he could write him a bogus ticket with impunity. A passive aggressive way to show some “entitled cyclist” who’s really in charge in this town.

  3. February 10, 2015 10:36 am

    It’s pretty shocking that you might run a red light but it’s more shocking that you have proof of taking a right from Lincoln onto 5th yet was “convicted” of going straight through that intersection on 5th. Were you able to present your proof? This is all pretty upsetting. I always do the legal thing and expect to not have to present proof that I did just that. Maybe a couple of cameras are in my future.

    • Adrian permalink
      February 10, 2015 12:07 pm

      Why is it shocking that he might Idaho Stop a red light? I think Doug goes to great length to explain that he only does it when it’s 100% safe (for everyone), always yields to anything with the right of way, and won’t do it at junctions where visibility is not very good. That sounds like a 100% upstanding citizen to me, the same way as I wouldn’t consider a jaywalker “shocking” unless they were obstructing traffic which had the right of way. Arbitrary enforcement of stupid laws doesn’t make a good society. Let’s create laws based on the relative danger of an activity, and overall lets just be considerate of each other.

      • February 10, 2015 12:30 pm

        True, but he also is a very public person and smart or not, it is presently illegal. I’d be happy to see a change in the laws (stop=yield, red=stop until safe). It makes sense although it would through people who drive cars mad, thinking we are entitled. But it wouldn’t make anyone less safe.

      • February 10, 2015 12:32 pm

        And it was a bit tongue-in-cheek.

  4. NattyB permalink
    February 10, 2015 1:28 pm

    I’m guessing Part 2 entails you challenging, and somehow losing, your ticket? Go Pro that s–t next time.

    We all know your real crime; failure to show due respect to cop. You lucky you’re an upper class white guy — well, if you weren’t, you wouldn’t have mouthed off, 1st Amendment notwithstanding.

    Face it man, you’re legally in the right to mouth off at cops; just try to avail yourself of that right without wasting a day in court.

    So, anyway, can’t wait for Part 2. If you straight up said, under oath, that you were turning right, gave your route and everything, and the ALJ sided with the cop, under preponderance of evidence — then you got done up. I’d be surprised to hear that you lost, but obviously you did, because here we are.

  5. February 10, 2015 3:18 pm

    i appreciate your preamble in points 1, 2, 3… that’s how i act/feel, but haven’t been able to sum it up as succinctly.

  6. February 10, 2015 3:26 pm

    FYI, I’m deleting any comments that refer to the police with offensive names or terms. While I agree with those who believe there are systemic reforms needed and that such interactions harm community relations, I think those arguments can be made without name-calling.

  7. February 10, 2015 5:01 pm

    Huh. I’ve been rigorously GPS-tracking even my plain ol’ bike commutes lately. This is almost justification for such a practice.

  8. Tyson White permalink
    February 12, 2015 10:04 pm

    Whatever happened to the police “observing” the violation? Little Alison Liao was run over and killed by an SUV but the ticket was dismissed by the DMV judge because the officer didn’t “observe” the violation, despite the fact it was all on video!

  9. James permalink
    February 13, 2015 7:44 am

    I am wondering if you were with your kid, as you often are in the photos you post. I hope so, actually, in reference to your larger points about privilege; that kid should see from a young age that police are not there to protect, to serve, or to respect.

    Too many streets activists ignore the role policing has in encouraging the “right” kind of people and street usage and violently discouraging the wrong. What you learned after a lifetime can be taught to him/her at a young age, and serve them in social justice arenas large and small.


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