Fort Lauderdale Cops Are Still Arresting Dozens for Biking While Black
Ornan Antoine was just trying to get home. It was a rain-laced July night around midnight in 2013. The stocky, gap-toothed Haitian was pedaling down SW 28th Avenue, heading from a buddy's house to his own sea-green single-story bungalow a few blocks over in the Melrose Park section of Fort Lauderdale. Drops were crashing down; the then-49-year-old's sandal kept slipping off his wet pedals, so he hopped off to walk the black bike. He then noticed two parked Fort Lauderdale Police cars idling on the residential block.
Quickly, Antoine was hit with a question that is an all-too-familiar refrain in Fort Lauderdale's black neighborhoods: "Is that bike registered?"
See also: Biking While Black Is a Crime
In 2003, the City of Fort Lauderdale passed an ordinance requiring residents to register their bicycles with the city. After forking over $1, each bike owner would be given a small sticker and his or her registration number slotted into a database. (The fee was dropped earlier last year.) At the time, bike thefts were rampant and the ordinance was ostensibly a piece of do-gooder legislation aimed at curbing the crime.
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City commissioners said it worked, and bike thefts decreased. Police also found that stopping bikers to check whether their bikes were registered turned out to be an effective way of finding drug dealers and house burglars. It gave cops probable cause to stop people, check their identification, and check for outstanding arrest warrants.
But the Broward Public Defender's Office -- which represents many poor, black, and indigent people accused of crimes -- alleged that Fort Lauderdale Police were discriminatory in their application of the law, using it as a pretext for stopping people primarily in African-American neighborhoods.
When New Times investigated in October 2013, we found that 86 percent of the tickets handed out by police over the three years prior had been given to African-Americans and that the ordinance was rarely even enforced in predominantly white neighborhoods. At the time, Fort Lauderdale Police Chief Franklin Adderley defended the practice, citing the ordinance as a useful way to approach bike-bound drug dealers, prostitutes, and robbers.
"We have to respond to the concerns of the community," Adderley told New Times last year. "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?"
Despite the bad publicity, city commissioners did nothing to change the law, and police continued to use it.
Now, more than a year since New Times first reported the disparity in enforcement, new data have emerged. According to numbers provided by the Public Defender's Office, although there's been a dramatic drop in the number of total citations handed out, the ratios show that blacks still receive the highest percentage of tickets -- an even higher percentage than at the time of our last report: a whopping 93 percent.
For Antoine, his answer to cops that night was no, his bike wasn't registered. The officers quickly ran his ID. Until then, the only scratch on his record had been a municipal ordinance citation for an open container. He didn't have any open warrants. But police confiscated the bike and put it in the back of their cruiser. "They left me to walk," Antoine says today, recalling the incident from behind the mesh screen door of his house. The unemployed man eventually registered the bike with the city and got it back -- but then it was stolen. In the year and a half since, he's racked up a DUI charge, but the memory of his bike seizure still stings.
Cops "always try to play like they're on your side, that they're protecting the neighborhood," he complains. "A lot of the time, they're just looking for warrants. They don't go into other neighborhoods to harass people on bicycles." He's got a new bike. This one isn't registered. "I'm sure they'll get it too," he says with a shrug.
The City Commission and Police Department "realized they're abusing this law, that it's clearly racial discrimination. They're just being picky about who they discriminated against," says Broward Public Defender Howard Finkelstein. "We've still got a law that's only being used in black neighborhoods."
Fort Lauderdale Police had issued 106 citations in 2010; 212 in 2011; 114 in 2012; and 28 from January until May 2013. Over that period, 86 percent of the citations were given to African-Americans. Almost none of the tickets were handed out east of Federal Highway, the more predominantly white or tourist-heavy slices of the city, even though of all bikes registered, only 37 percent were registered to whites and 63 percent to blacks, suggesting whites were far less likely to obey the bike registration law. (Census data show Fort Lauderdale is 62.6 percent white and 31 percent black.)
Photo by James Argyropoulos The Ft. Lauderdale critical mass, which has had its own trouble with the law.
When contacted for comment, the Fort Lauderdale Police Department would not confirm the number of citations, nor would the department's public information officer provide the numbers on current bike ordinances. "We are not required by the Sunshine Law to answer questions or do your research for you," Detective DeAnna Greenlaw wrote in an email. She did not comment on the statistics.
In an email, Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jack Seiler asked to see the information before commenting. "Obviously, we dispute any allegation of racial bias or unfair application of the law," he wrote. New Times emailed the mayor copies of the 45 tickets and a spreadsheet compiled by the Public Defender's Office showing the racial breakdown, but Seiler added no further comment.
Says Finkelstein: "Sounds to me like it's politics. By reducing the numbers [of total citations issued], they think they can go under the radar and nobody will notice or care. Well, if you're one of those 43 people, you don't care that 250 people didn't get cited. You were tagged 'cause you're black."
Markinson Joseph, 16, was one of the unlucky ones. Between June 2013 and December 2014, he was handed four citations for failing to register his bicycle. The stops, clustered around his Middle River Terrace neighborhood, were all excuses to be messed with by police, he claims. On two occasions, he was taken into custody due to home custody violations, according to records. (If Joseph has any criminal record, it would not be public due to his age.)
"I feel like the Police Department are abusing their authority against us minors," the teenager says. "They're just using that as an excuse to stop us. One time they said I ran a stop sign on a bike. Then they told me I got slick with them, so they ended up giving me a ticket."
The teen pauses when asked how it makes him feel. "I don't have no feelings no more," he says. "I already know about society and how it doesn't benefit me."
The experience couldn't be more different only a few miles east on Fort Lauderdale Beach. On a gray Tuesday afternoon, only a few tourists are lying out on the wind-whipped beach. Garret Winter, a sun-cured, middle-aged guy in a dark polo shirt and visor, sits along the wall near the sand reading a folded newspaper. A burning cigar in his hand unspools smoke like an overworked factory chimney.
"I've read stories about that," he says when asked about the bike ordinance. "It made me think about getting this registered," he adds, pointing to the battered yellow Schwinn nearby. But he didn't. Why?
" 'Cause I'm not black," he shrugs. "I'm just out here smoking a cigar."
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