Biking While Black Is a Crime
Illustration by Dan Andreasen
Huffing home on her green beach cruiser, Lekeithra Smith was already edgy about what might be hunkered down in the dark, waiting. It was near 9:30 p.m. in late April 2011. The 22-year-old was pedaling just a few feet behind her high-school-aged cousin Deadra, coming back from a party at their aunt's house. Both were stuffed from plates of food and feeling the late hour.
They rode through a knot of residential streets behind Sunrise Boulevard businesses — all razor-fenced lots, oil-slicked loading areas, and dumpsters. Except for smudged yellow light spilling from the occasional street lamp, the neighborhood was dark. Neither knew the area. But hey, at least they were on bikes, Smith figured, and could speed away if someone bolted from the shadows.
Suddenly, Smith's eyelids crashed shut against a burst of light. Up ahead, about a half-dozen Fort Lauderdale police officers were swinging flashlights her way.
Biking While Black
The young women were ordered off their bikes and questioned about where they were heading. One officer asked Smith if her bike was registered with the city, she remembers. "I don't know nothing about no bike being registered," she says she told them. "I ride my bike to work all the time."
Because it wasn't registered, the bike would be impounded, she was told. Smith, a black woman with thin haywire dreads and an eyebrow stud, threw up her defenses.
"Why are you taking my bike? It's not stolen," she said. She had the receipt back home, she explained, and her record was clean; she had a good job stacking merchandise at Winn-Dixie.
But the arguments didn't dent the officer's indifference. Police confiscated her bicycle and wrote a citation. "The cited individual is a resident of the city of Fort Lauderdale," the document read in simple policespeak. "The cited individual failed to register bicycle."
Smith was shocked. "I could get kidnapped or something. Anything can happen to either one of us because we're girls," an agitated Smith remembers warning the cops. "What if I come up missing on the same night that y'all took my bike? It will look bad on your behalf."
Smith spiked her cell phone against the pavement, then stomped home safely. Two years later, she is still angry. "Y'all taking my bike, but y'all not taking me back home," she says today. "I had to walk the streets at night."
If you're black in Fort Lauderdale, a bike ride might be the easiest way to land a run-in with police. A seemingly benign city law requiring registration of bicycles is — in practice — almost as racist as the NYPD's "stop and frisk" tactics. Of the nearly 460 citations handed out in the past three years in Fort Lauderdale, 86 percent went to African-Americans. Almost none were handed out in white neighborhoods east of Federal Highway. Indeed, more bikes are registered to blacks than to whites — 63 percent to 37 percent.
Critics see a pattern of racial profiling in those stats. They claim cops are stopping blacks on the pretense of doing a bike registration check and then using that to look for other crimes.
"That is selective enforcement and racial profiling," says Broward County Public Defender Howard Finkelstein. "It is illegal, it is unconstitutional, and it is also immoral."
"They do it every day," Sammie Lee Harris growls around a burning Newport. "There ain't a guy riding a bicycle that hasn't been stopped at one point or another."
All around Harris, the daily afternoon ritual at Delevoe Park is rolling along as usual. On the grassy stretch just off Sistrunk Boulevard, more than 30 people are filling up picnic benches. Brown-bagged tall boys are being tipped, and a light breeze tosses around the smell of one-buck cigars. LeVert's "(Pop, Pop, Pop, Pop) Goes My Mind" flows from huge stereo speakers mounted on the back of a Ford Explorer. Outside of a lone visitor, everyone in the park is black.
Harris, dapper head to foot in a loose polo, snow-white cargo shorts, and fedora, is agitated. Although he's hauling a criminal record that includes a robbery charge and a string of cocaine and marijuana possessions, the Pompano Beach resident has stayed out of trouble since 2009. Last November, he was pedaling his bike down Sistrunk, the main drag through Fort Lauderdale's historically black neighborhood, when police hassled him about registration. He wasn't a city resident, and according to the law, "registration is optional for out-of-city residents who ride their bicycles within the city." Still, Simmons says the police used the opportunity to run his name through the system and arrested him on suspicion of a warrant. He later was released without any charges.
"What do you need my ID for? Why are you asking me about the last time I was arrested?" Simmons barks, remembering his argument with the cops. "Why do you want to go through all these little procedures about a bike?"
Just then, a three-wheeled bike, slung low like a go-cart, rolls up to the table where Harris is seated while talking. Kenny Smith, the wiry driver, jury-rigged the ride himself. He says cops don't harass him for his bike because homemade bikes lack serial numbers and are therefore exempt from registration. "They pull up beside me and go," Smith says, showing a thumbs-up before cracking up with laughter.
"Fort Lauderdale is the only city that requires you to have a sticker," he says, grin tightening to a grimace. "But the main thing, it gives them probable cause, so they're going to run your name."
The statute simply requires "any person residing within the city who owns any bicycle to register such bicycle with the police department." The registration fee is $1, and each bike is given a small decal to indicate compliance. "A police officer may take into possession and impound any bicycle being operated or possessed on all streets," the law reads, "when the bicycle does not have attached thereto a bicycle registration decal."
Although Hollywood and North Lauderdale have similar provisions, their laws are rarely enforced. Miami-Dade also has a bike registration program, but it's voluntary.
New Times reviewed nearly 460 citations handed out by the Fort Lauderdale Police Department between July 2010 and June 2013. Many of the numbers and addresses are no longer valid. Many of those cited have criminal records. A count by Finkelstein's office revealed that fewer than one in three of the citations contained comments from police about why the stops were initiated.
Clutching a bag from Burger King, Telly Lockhart says he was riding his bike down NW 11th Place near Sunrise around 9:30 on a weeknight in 2011 when a patrol car rolled up.
In 1992, he'd been charged with delivery of cocaine, aggravated assault, and battery; in 2002, he was again in cuffs on a cocaine possession charge. But the then-36-year-old had been clean since, and he said as much as a Fort Lauderdale Police officer approached.
The officer said Lockhart's bike didn't have a light and asked if it was registered, Lockhart remembers. He answered that he'd just bought the beach cruiser from Walmart. The officer explained that the bike would have to go. After searching his pockets and finding no contraband, the cop said Lockhart could come down to the police station, pay the fine, and get back the bike.
"Man, I don't have transportation to get the bike. That's why I'm on a bike," Lockhart protested. Bikeless, he was never able to retrieve his cruiser. Instead, he soon got a valet job at a Nissan dealership and later bought a car, he says. "No doubt, they don't go into the upscale neighborhoods and do that."
In August of 2011, Ellsworth Knowles was steering his black bicycle to the Midway Food Market just off Broward Boulevard. About the only thing on the then-43-year-old's mind was whether he'd be picking a Dr. Pepper or a Pepsi out of the cooler.
Suddenly, plainclothes police officers were marching out of an unmarked car, asking Knowles if his bike was registered. The dreadlocked commercial painter whistled some expletive at the cops, then explained the registration didn't apply because he didn't live in Fort Lauderdale but in Pembroke Pines.
According to Knowles, who'd been charged with battery in 1989 and grand theft in 1995, the cops smashed his black beach cruiser against the ground, bending the chrome-trimmed wheels.
"It's essentially fishing for crime, as opposed to having legitimate reasons to see if a crime is committed," he says today. "If they're stopping and spending time harassing me on my bike, you might have a burglar on the next street breaking into someone's home."
The Fort Lauderdale Police chief stands at ease in the middle of the street, hands in his uniform pockets, lobbing the occasional hock of spit onto the pavement. Frank Adderley is average in size and build, his face a clean-shaven, all-business screen that rarely jumps with emotion. Right now, he's listening to the same story he hears all the time, today pouring from Torren Poole.
From his front lawn on a side street off Sistrunk, the 30-something homeowner ticks off his complaints: Prostitutes have sex on the roof of the building behind the house where he lives with his wife and two kids. Tween drug pushers are pedaling the streets till 4 or 5 in the morning. If something isn't nailed down here, it's as good as stolen. He's had to call police twice this week about disturbances. His own bike was just swiped off his lawn.
"Have you ever seen The Walking Dead, bro? Walkers, that's what we've got," Poole says. "It's a war."
"And according to Finkelstein," Adderley chuckles, a rare crack in demeanor, "we're not supposed to stop them on bicycles."
Crime stats show mixed results for the area. Some crimes — such as assault and residential burglary — steadily declined between 2011 and today. But narcotics arrests rose between 2011 to 2012, from 211 to 245 arrests, with 148 logged already for 2013. Prostitution has also climbed from 21 arrests in 2011 to 65 in 2012, with six arrests on the books for 2013.
Poole says that considering all the crime, he's all for police using a registration ordinance as probable cause to stop people (even though, he admits, his own bike wasn't registered). Better yet, he says, the cops should lock down the whole city after hours with a martial-law-style curfew. "The police need to do what they need to do.
"And you know how you can see [the criminals are] up to no good?" Poole adds. He mimes a hand-in-the-cookie-jar face, then nervously looks back over his shoulder. As if on cue, a moment later a stick-figure-thin black woman wobbles by on a bicycle. Before pushing into the next block, she peers back. "Prostitute," Poole suggests.
"And that bike," Adderley says, throwing a finger at the rider, "is not registered. You would see a little sticker."
Adderley sports Sistrunk bona fides. Today, Fort Lauderdale's first black police chief still lives in the small white bungalow where he grew up, steps from the notorious boulevard. As a kid, he watched hookers and johns cycle through a boxy building across the street. Now, like many structures on the block, that building is sealed with boards.
The chief bats off criticism about the city's bike ordinance. "The police department, we have to respond to the concerns of the community. And if people say, 'Hey, we've got this drug problem, this burglary problem, and we've got people that are on bikes committing these crimes,' we need to ignore them?" he says, those last words hiked up an octave in disbelief.
Back in the mid-'90s, Fort Lauderdale saw a spike in crime, with numbers that outpaced urban horror shows like Detroit and Washington, D.C. But when broken down by specific offense, it wasn't murder, rapes, or burglaries topping local stats.
"The biggest crime we had was bicycle theft," remembers Tim Smith, a white, longtime Middle River Terrace fixture who served on Fort Lauderdale's City Commission between 1997 and 2003. "You really could not own a bike if you didn't attach it to your leg."
Smith brainstormed a solution. If Fort Lauderdale had a bike registry with serial numbers, police could track stolen bikes and return them to their rightful owners.
But the stolen-bike craze dovetailed with the flood of crack in the city's northwest area. To limit their own exposure, the older dealers used young kids on bikes as drug couriers, Smith says. After the bike-registration ordinance passed in 1999, police would stop bikes to check for registration and frequently find crack slingers sitting on the seat.
"There's no question that the fact that people had to register their bicycles probably helped in the effort to stop the crack dealing," Smith says.
Adderley defends the use of the bicycle ordinance and denies that any type of racial profiling is involved. When he replays the complaints from downtown (and particularly from white politicians like Finkelstein), frustration comes crashing through the façade of the cool and careful public servant. There's a realpolitik of street policing to consider, he argues. Without the ordinance, crime in the black neighborhoods would go up.
"We have to reduce crime," Adderley says. "And if we have a high number of burglaries and robberies and complaints of drug activity in a certain area and we figure out the majority of offenders are riding bicycles, we shouldn't just ignore it because Howard Finkelstein has a perception.
"Really, who's more racist?" Adderley says, miming Finkelstein's position: "'The black people don't know what they're doing, so let me come over and tell them how to do it for themselves.'"
The concept of "probable cause" isn't likely clouding anyone's thoughts at the beach, where the faces are predominantly pasty.
It's Sunday, the sky above Fort Lauderdale is a bulging blue, and the afternoon ritual is rolling along as usual. From the Elbo Room, the double-decker dive bar at Las Olas Boulevard and North Fort Lauderdale Beach Boulevard, cheers from NFL fans rain down onto the sidewalks clogged with pedestrians. Across the street, the sand is packed tight with sunning skin. And when you look around, bikes are everywhere — chained up to light posts, weaving through pedestrians, stacked in the back of pickup trucks. None appears to have a registration sticker.
Sitting on the wall with his back to the sand, a bearded white guy in his late 30s leans over his smart phone, watching a video. He plucks out his earbuds to listen to a question. Is his bike registered? "Nope," he answers. Is he worried about violating the city ordinance? "Never heard of it," he says, his face crunching up in a perplexed look. Ever been stopped by police for a bike registration check? "No," he answers again, eyes slicing to the side, as if waiting for a camera crew to pop out and reveal a gag.
A hundred yards up the pavement, a beefy Caucasian man in a safari hat is getting ready to push off on his bicycle. He shakes his head and rubs a hand across his sweaty face, missing a gob of suntan lotion smeared above his lip. As a longtime Fort Lauderdale resident, the registration law is breaking news to him. "And I've had over ten bikes here," he says.
A young dude in his 20s, sporting a red tank top and workout shorts, stretches out after chaining his bike to a nearby tree. "It sounds like something I would be interested in signing up for," he says earnestly. "Do you know how I can sign up?"
A white man in a neon shirt, catching his breath after a ride, noticeably tenses when informed that he could lose his unregistered fiberglass two-wheel beauty to police since it's not registered.
"Why? This bike isn't stolen or anything," he says, steamed anyone would suspect otherwise. "Why would I have to register it?"
Dr. Lorie Fridell, an associate professor at the University of South Florida's Department of Criminology, who wrote a 500-page book on racial profiling, says disparities in statistics can lead to various interpretations.
"Men are arrested more than women, low-income people are arrested more than high income, young people more than elderly people. Those are disparities, but that doesn't necessarily imply police bias." Still, the Fort Lauderdale PD numbers on bike citations "certainly raise my concerns," Fridell says.
She says police are using the bike ordinance as "pretext stops" — using probable cause for one violation as a pretext to investigate a separate crime. According to a 1996 U.S. Supreme Court decision titled Whren v. U.S., law enforcement is free to conduct such stops — but not when race is the motivating factor, she says.
"The information that black drug dealers sometimes use bikes is not enough to justify targeting blacks on bikes," Fridell says. "So there's the possibility here that the officers are using these bike stops as a pretext to investigate drug crimes, and they are using race in making their decisions, which would violate the Whren v. U.S. decision and thus the Constitution."
Patrick Muhammad is down front in the audience, waiting for his opening. Nearly every hard metal chair in the indoor meeting space at Carter Park on Sunrise Boulevard is filled, an unusual turnout for the monthly community get-together held by City Commissioner Bobby Dubose. Everyone who speaks is greeted with serious nods and hearty "amens."
Muhammad is lank and lean, draped in black pants and matching tunic with red shoulder lapels, the uniform of the Nation of Islam. He's here hoping to whip up some ire over the bike ordinance; if he can find enough wronged riders, he intends to file a class-action lawsuit against the department.
But the audience is cranked up over a different matter: the newly created Flagler Village, a yuppie enclave across the train tracks that has decided not to extend the name "Sistrunk Boulevard" to its leg of Sixth Street. The name — an homage to Broward's first black physician, Dr. James Sistrunk — is a point of pride for the people in the room. The representatives from Flagler Village, however, say the name today is associated with drugs and crime.
It's racism, some say. "I remember when Fort Lauderdale was one of the most racist cities in the country, if not the most racist," says one wrinkled black man. "And we're not that far removed from that. When the rubber hits the road, we've got to do it, we've got to step up and raise hell and throw rocks — not physically."
Muhammad was raised in Ocala and Fort Lauderdale; as a young man, he lived the fast life — drugs, guns, and shoeboxes of cash under the bed. Short jail stints for accessory after the fact in a shooting and dealing in stolen property slowed his rise as a street hustler. He bagged the thug life altogether in 1993, he says, when he joined the Nation of Islam. He now owns a car-detailing business but still goes door-to-door to recruit followers.
When Muhammad first read about the bicycle law, it hit a familiar note. "I know the history of the Fort Lauderdale Police Department, and I know growing up in that area that we've always had a problem with treatment from the police," he says. "They've always done things to make life harder on us. This bicycle law is just another way they could get to us." Muhammad never got a turn to speak at the meeting. But on his own, outside of the Nation of Islam, he's been meeting with community leaders. He'd like the city to be more proactive in registering bicycles. He's also begun tentatively to round up plaintiffs for a possible lawsuit. Whether the bike ordinance stands or falls depends on whether it's challenged.
The American Civil Liberties Union would be onboard with such a fight. Fort Lauderdale attorney Barry Butin, head of the ACLU's Broward branch, says the statistics about the number of citations handed out to African-Americans spell out a constitutional violation. "Police officers are supposed to base stops on reasonable suspicion that a crime is being committed, not based on the color of someone's skin."
Butin, like Muhammad, says the next step is rounding up enough plaintiffs. "It's a factual situation where you have to prove in court constitutional violations, and you need plaintiffs for that," Butin says. "Some people that are subject to this might just leave it for another day or not want to sign their name on a lawsuit against police. What we would be looking for now are people willing to go all the way with this."
Finkelstein's office is taking a small-scale approach: going case by case, bringing up the uneven enforcement statistics as a defense for any of his clients whose arrest began with a bike stop. The police, he bellows, are using the bike ordinance "as a ruse, a subterfuge, a pretext in order to question them and search them," he says. "This biking law was created for no other reason than to stop people."
For his part, Adderley seems to already be anticipating a courtroom tussle. "Our job is to enforce the law," he says. "We don't determine who is the person who's in violation."
But he concedes that he would stop using it if ordered by the courts. "If a judge says we can't use the ordinance, we won't."
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