Critical Mass: NYPD Carries Smaller Stick This Week

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Busted again: Rob Barrett, pictured here after his arrest at last month's Critical Mass ride, with vouchers for his confiscated bike. (photo: Sarah Ferguson)

The NYPD switched up its game at Friday's Critical Mass ride. Instead of making mass arrests for protest charges like disorderly conduct and parading without a permit, cops cited cyclists with traffic violations, then let them go on their way.

This apparent backpedaling of its hardline stance comes after yet another judge refused to outlaw the monthly bike rides, chiding the city for not finding a better way to work with the cyclists.

And it follows reports in both the Voice and The New York Times of police engaging in high-speed chases and reportedly reckless arrest tactics.

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On Friday's ride, police issued 23 tickets for violations such as running red lights or going the wrong way down a one-way street. Three other cyclists were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct for "corking"—blocking traffic at intersections so the mass can pass as a group.

But the arrestees were released after just an hour and a half instead of the usual six or seven-hour ordeal.

Deputy Commissioner Paul J. Browne insists there's been "no change" in police policy. "Tactics vary depending on what police encounter," Browne responded in an e-mail to the Voice. But bike activists, who have long argued that bikers on the mass ride should be treated as traffic, were generally pleased.

"We feel it's a big victory," said Bill DiPaola of Time's Up!, the grassroots environmental group targeted by the city for promoting Critical Mass. "They're doing what we've been asking them to do—just give out tickets, but don't arrest people." DiPaola said he and other Time's Up! members were hoping to meet with police to work out ways to further "deescalate" tensions on the street.

"This is the kind of sign we've been looking for from the police," DiPaola said.

Even so, it wasn't exactly liberating to be riding with a constant tail of police in vans, cars, and scooters just waiting to pounce on you for every minor infraction—as a police chopper hovered overhead. There was a text-message report of a cyclist getting nailed for riding without a bike light, and some bikers said they still found the police menacing.

"Cops in three Explorers and two police vans rode right up into the middle of the ride and cut people off," said Luke Son, who was pulled over with two other cyclists for allegedly running red lights on Eighth Avenue between 26th and 29th Streets—an easy thing to do since there is no crosstown traffic there because of the housing projects on the west side of Eighth Avenue. "I know I didn't run any lights because I kept stopping to look for my girlfriend," insists Son, a Columbia student and licensed EMT who came to the aid of the injured scooter police at last month's ride.

"I'm riding a one-speed folding bike with 14-inch wheels. If I'd stopped, they would have run me over," complained Jessica Rechtschaffer, a department administrator at Columbia University who also received a summons.

Assistant Chief Bruce Smolka, who's been leading the crack down on Critical Mass as commander of Manhattan South, was clearly in a zero-tolerance mood when he ticketed a guy for doing a bike lift in Times Square then busted a couple of legal observers.

Video footage shot by activists shows Smolka, dressed in plain clothes, casually walking into the intersection at 43rd Street with a coffee cup in one hand as the legal observers, clearly identified by their bright green neon caps, coast by. With his free hand, Smolka grabs a female observer by the bike chain locked around her waist and dumps her off her bike, as two other plain-clothes officers corral her companion.

"It was a real shock, I didn't know who he was," said Adrienne Wheeler, 27, of Prospect Heights, Brooklyn. She and the other legal observer were charged for riding north on Broadway, just before they turned into the intersection.

The NYPD's new enforcement strategy would seem to answer the charge that the city was pursuing a double standard by arresting cyclists for riding in traffic—a right they insist they already have.

While the city claims the non-permitted rides are unsafe, lawyers for the cyclists have long questioned why the NYPD would not simply ticket bikers who violate traffic rules, as they do for any other driver.

And ticketing could wind up being a far more effective deterrent. The penalty for running a red light is $150 and it quickly escalates to $300 and $750 for second and third-time offenses.

Most riders said they were happy to stop at lights as long as cops don't use the opportunity to bust them. But they also hoped police might slack up once they realize how more longer it takes for the mass ride to roam through Manhattan if people have to brake at every light.

Rob Barrett was arrested for the second month in a row after he placed his bike in front of a driver that tried to plow into the ride on Broadway. But even after getting a second bike confiscated by police, Barrett says he has no regrets. "If I didn't do that, somebody would have gotten hurt," says the 21-year-old sophomore at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.

"We're nothing to the cars, the cars don't give a shit, especially the cabs," says Barrett, who still bears the scars from a run-in with a taxi last year that shattered his kneecap. "But today they have no choice to give a shit. Today they have to pay attention."


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