It was just a regular Saturday morning in November, 2009, nothing special about it. Sunny, cool. Brooklyn had made its transformation from a wild Friday night to the calmness of an early Saturday.
As some took their dogs for walks, and others began their weekend workshifts, I embarked on a cross-borough bicycle trek from Bedford-Stuyvesant to Coney Island. The miles I’d put in would do my body good, I thought. But I would soon be reminded of where I was and the realities of where I live.
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Not long after I started to ride, I noticed that the air in my front tire was low and I pulled off the street and onto the sidewalk. As I cruised to a stop, police sirens blared. I wondered if there had been an accident, if officers had to give chase to a robber or carjacker. But the squad car parked only a few feet from where I stood. I was in the middle of one of the most high-crime areas of the city, and I knew the cops weren’t approaching me to direct me to the nearest air pump.
Growing up in urban America, I’d long since acquired instincts about what to do when approached by the police. Keep calm. No sudden movements. Answer questions in a brief, but direct manner. Don’t get an attitude. Don’t become irritated. This isn’t to say that the cops are an enemy, necessarily. I’ve known and are still friends with many, many people in law enforcement who are decent people and save lives every day.
But still fresh in my mind at the time was the shooting death of Sean Bell, a black male killed by a NYPD officer’s bullet just hours before he was to be married. I’d written about that case, but I certainly didn’t want to have another journalist write about me.
“Do you know why we’re stopping you,” the young officer, a white male asked me. “Could it be because I’m riding my bike on the sidewalk, officer?” I responded. As calm as I tried to be, the officer still resented my tone.
The second cop, a black male with a Caribbean accent, approached me and explained something more complicated, and more jarring. He said that there had been a rash of purse snatchings in the area, done by people riding bikes and the victims had described someone who fit my description: a black male in a hooded sweatshirt.
It is now eerie how prophetic that was.
It then became very difficult to hold in my frustration. I’m basically as square as they come. Drugs? No. Criminal record? No. But since I’m one of many black men in that area who wear hooded sweatshirts, I fit the profile. ”Really?” I said in disbelief. ”Yeah really,” the white officer said. His partner knew that since I was being calm, he may be able to diffuse anything from escalating.
The officers ordered me to show my identification and stand against the wall. Failure to do so could have resulted in a pat down and possibly an invitation to a suite at the 77th precinct. My record came up clean, and the white officer issued me a citation for the bike offense. I asked them why it was necessary to stop me for just riding on the sidewalk. The black officer, understanding my frustration, explained that it was an NYPD policy that I could be detained by police if they simply suspected I might have committed a crime, been in possession of something illegal, or was holding an illegal weapon.
Enough was enough. ”Officers, I’d like your names and badge numbers, please. I have the right to ask for it.” The first officer seethed, knowing I was right, but finding it uncharacteristic in this neighborhood. Both of them complied and I snapped photos of their badges with my cellphone. The black officer advised me to consult my city councilperson to address the policy and they then let me continue my journey. While on the bike path, I did my best to forget what happened, but vowed to fight the ticket.
Today, my case is probably one of the less complicated stories regarding the policy. I’ve had friends who spent time in police cars and even in a precinct cell only to be released after it was determined they were clean. What a waste of resources and taxpayer money. So when a federal judge in New York said that the NYPD’s “stop, question, and frisk” policy is unconstitutional, it struck me that maybe someone figured out that the way to reduce crime isn’t by harassing people on bicycles.
Months later, I won my case and got the ticket for riding my bike on the sidewalk dismissed. The cops didn’t even bother to show up to court. It would have been a waste of their time.