How riding your bike can land you in trouble with the cops — if you’re black

Published April 18, 2015|Updated June 21, 2021

If the tickets are any indication, Tampa residents must be the lousiest bicyclists in Florida.

They don't use lights at night. Don't ride close enough to the curb. Can't manage to keep their hands on the handlebars.

In the past three years, Tampa police have written 2,504 bike tickets — more than Jacksonville, Miami, St. Petersburg and Orlando combined.

Police say they are gung ho about bike safety and focused on stopping a plague of bike thefts.

But here's something they don't mention about the people they ticket:

Eight out of 10 are black.

A Tampa Bay Times investigation has found that Tampa police are targeting poor, black neighborhoods with obscure subsections of a Florida statute that outlaws things most people have tried on a bike, like riding with no light or carrying a friend on the handlebars.

Officers use these minor violations as an excuse to stop, question and search almost anyone on wheels. The department doesn't just condone these stops, it encourages them, pushing officers who patrol high-crime neighborhoods to do as many as possible.

There was the 56-year-old man who rode his bike through a stop sign while pulling a lawnmower. Police handcuffed him while verifying he had, indeed, borrowed the mower from a friend.

There was the 54-year-old man whose bike was confiscated because he couldn't produce a receipt to prove it was his.

One woman was walking her bike home after cooking for an elderly neighbor. She said she was balancing a plate of fish and grits in one hand when an officer flagged her down and issued her a $51 ticket for not having a light. With late fees, it has since ballooned to $90. She doesn't have the money to pay.

The Times analyzed more than 10,000 bicycle tickets Tampa police issued in the past dozen years. The newspaper found that even though blacks make up about a quarter of the city's population, they received 79 percent of the bike tickets.

Some riders have been stopped more than a dozen times through the years, and issued as many as 17 tickets. Some have been ticketed three times in one day.

It's possible blacks in some areas use bicycles more than whites. But that's not what's driving the disparity.

Police are targeting certain high-crime neighborhoods and nitpicking cyclists as a way to curb crime. They hope they will catch someone with a stolen bike or with drugs or that they will scare thieves away.

"This is not a coincidence," said Police Chief Jane Castor. "Many individuals receiving bike citations are involved in criminal activity."

She said her department has done such a good job curbing auto theft that bikes have "become the most common mode of transportation for criminals."

Many of the tickets did go to convicted criminals, including some people interviewed for this story. And there are cases where police stopped someone under suspicious circumstances and found a gun or caught a burglar.

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But most bike stops that led to a ticket turned up no illegal activity; only 20 percent of adults ticketed last year were arrested.

When police did arrest someone, it was almost always for a small amount of drugs or a misdemeanor like trespassing.

One man went to jail for refusing to sign a ticket.

On Davis Islands, where Mayor Bob Buckhorn lives near baseball star Derek Jeter, police could issue multiple tickets. But they don't. One recent night, the Times observed a couple leaving an ice cream shop on unlit beach cruisers and a cyclist riding along the dark coastline, visible only because of the reflectors on his pedals.

Only one ticket was written last year on Davis Islands. It went to a black man.

The same goes for Bayshore Boulevard, another of the city's main biking destinations. Only one person got a ticket there last year. He, too, is black.

"Each neighborhood has a unique set of issues," Castor said. "What is a problem in one area of the city may not be in another. We have an obligation to address the individual issues that plague each neighborhood."

For weeks, the Times asked Castor for an interview. But the police chief declined, instead providing written statements.

Mayor Buckhorn also declined comment, saying Castor's statement "speaks for itself."

The Times' findings concern others — Hillsborough Circuit judges and the Public Defender, social rights advocates and some of the leading researchers in race and policing.

"You almost roll your eyes when you read the reports," said Circuit Judge Tracy Sheehan. "Oh no, another bike stop, another kid riding on the handlebars, here we go. And certainly, we have laws and we should all follow the law, but it occurred to me the stops were all occurring in certain neighborhoods and with certain children, and not in my neighborhood, and not with the white kids."

Joyce Hamilton Henry, Director of Advocacy for ACLU of Florida, wants to know: "If it's not racial profiling, what is it?"

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When first asked about the bicycle tickets, Tampa police directed inquiries to Capt. Ruben Delgado, who provided reporters with a strategy created a few years ago to encourage cyclists to register their bikes so officers could identify them if they were stolen.

He denied bicycle law was being used primarily to root out drugs or fight crime unrelated to bikes.

"We want to see the thefts of bicycles go down. We want to see the safety get better so there are less crashes," he said. "Whether it leads to something else or not is going to be secondary."

He said when officers find people in violation of bike law, they hand out lights and give warnings. Tickets, he said, are a last resort.

But the Times found that the department has ticketed hundreds of black bicyclists each year for more than a decade.

The racial breakdown of the tickets suggests police are using their discretion differently when it comes to bikes. For more serious driving offenses, blacks were not more likely to be cited. For failing to stop at a red light in 2014, blacks got only 11 percent of tickets. Bike tickets that year, 81 percent.

Internal police department records show a sustained effort to encourage bike stops as a means to reduce more serious crimes.

Officers get yearly "productivity reports," calculating, in part, how many tickets they give. One personnel file detailed a "red grid patrol" in which officers are encouraged to "engage and identify offenders through street checks, bike stops and traffic stops."

In another file, a supervisor told a new officer he should learn rarely used traffic statutes. The fact that he wasn't familiar with them was noted as a "significant weakness" in his 2012 performance review. The next year, the new officer impressed his bosses with his "dramatic increase" in "self-initiated activity."

He wrote 111 bike tickets, the most in the department. All but four of the cyclists were black.

Bike tickets got special attention in 2007 when a squad set out on a mission dubbed "Bicycle Blitzkrieg."

The goal, according to a department memo, was "to aggressively enforce bicycle infractions … where there has been increased criminal activity."

Stopping people on bikes, especially at night, would introduce officers to "potential criminals, thus opening more avenues to make arrests and clear the streets of the subjects that are committing the crimes."

During the three-month blitz, officers arrested dozens and issued 266 citations and the squad was given an award lauding its "significant impact in reducing crime."

For the past three years, no law enforcement agency in the state has given as many bicycle tickets as the Tampa Police Department. It is responsible for 12 percent of all bike tickets written in Florida.

Last year, Tampa police wrote at least four tickets for something no longer illegal: riding a bike without holding the handlebars.

Former Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, remembers submitting the violation for repeal back in 2012, when legislators were encouraged to weed out archaic and obsolete laws.

This one fit the bill.

"It was against the law," she said. "I mean, really? … As a kid, I used to ride without my hands all the time."

• • •

• • •

For many who live just west of downtown, in the blocks surrounding the city's oldest, ugliest public housing complex, the world is only as large as the distance they can ride their bicycles. Residents pedal to work, to school, to pick up dinner and to attend church.

It isn't hard to find people who have been stopped by police and issued tickets: The kid riding home from football practice, the guy detailing cars. They were cited last year along with dozens of their neighbors.

Then there was Alphonso Lee King, ordered to remove a bag of food and a lock from his bicycle so an officer could confiscate it "due to the fact the bicycle is worth over $500," the officer wrote, "and King was not able to produce any type of documentation that he bought the bike legally."

King said he and his brother, a scrapper, found the bike frame in a Dumpster and assembled it from parts. The bike was the only way he could get around after getting out of prison last summer for dealing drugs.

Tampa police impounded it for 90 days, advertising it as "found" property, even though it had not been reported stolen.

These types of stops also happen in other low-income, high-crime, predominantly black pockets, including Sulphur Springs and parts of East Tampa.

In Tampa Heights, police stopped 63-year-old Lloyd Brown for not having lights on his bike — except he did, and they almost immediately acknowledged that. "Well, I'm glad to see you're in compliance today, sir," an officer said as a dashboard camera recorded.

But the 2013 encounter didn't end there. The officer kept Brown's identification and questioned him about what he'd bought at the grocery store.

The interrogation escalated to whether he used drugs, and a search revealed a small amount of crack.

"Let me explain something to you, okay?" the officer said. "If you do anything dumb, your head will hit this ground very hard, okay? And you will go to the hospital before you go to jail."

The felony charge, pleaded down to a misdemeanor, impeded Brown's ability to get an apartment, forcing him to move in with relatives.

Brown was shuttling from one home to another one morning a few weeks ago in North Tampa, towing all of his belongings on his bike, when another officer stopped him for riding in the middle of the street.

The officer checked his identification and flipped his bike to look at the serial number. It bore a sticker: God's Pedal Power Ministry. "I got it from a church!" Brown said.

The officer sent him on his way.

The scenario has become cliche in these parts, where kids as young as 12 describe the same dance grown men recall from growing up in Tampa.

"It's always the light, or to run your VIN number," said 31-year-old Anthony Gilbert of College Hill. " 'Let's have your ID. Just stand in front of my cruiser.' Now, you're being humiliated. Your friend's riding by. Your reverend might be riding by. Now, you've got to go to church. The pastor's going to be like, 'What happened, son?' "

Last year, officers stopped a man in Belmont Heights after he ran a stop sign on an unlit bike. They searched 33-year-old Artis Hancock, and when he tried to flee, a scuffle ensued. Hancock wound up on the ground as an officer punched, kicked and choked him to unconsciousness.

The officer said Hancock reached for his Taser. A public defender later argued the search was illegal and that Hancock's charges, including drug possession, should be dismissed.

In Hillsborough Circuit Court, Judge Samantha Ward listened to the officers try to justify their suspicion that Hancock may have had a weapon on him, which they said prompted them to search Hancock without consent.

"He was in a high-crime area," said one officer.

"He had large clothing," said another.

Before she dismissed all of Hancock's criminal charges, Ward quipped:

"Was he black, too?"

• • •

• • •

Tampa officers' emphasis on bike stops is a logical extension of the department's crime fighting philosophy.

Like many cities across the nation, Tampa for years has embraced "proactive" policing.

Instead of waiting to respond to 911 calls, officers now look for ways to initiate contact with potential lawbreakers and head off crime before it happens.

Agencies across the country, including Tampa, credit the approach for a steep decrease in crime.

Earlier this year, Castor spoke in Washington in front of President Barack Obama's Task Force on 21st Century Policing.

She emphasized the importance of building trust in high crime neighborhoods.

"Every encounter with an officer is an opportunity to build a positive partnership in the community. It creates trust that must be the foundation of our relationship with our citizens," she said.

"I always remind them to never lose sight of the power they have in their badges, the power to not only take away someone's freedom, but possibly their life. This power must be used wisely and only when necessary."

Experts say the trust Castor references is not helped when communities feel they are being targeted by practices like Tampa's bike citation efforts. Police departments can — and have — gotten in trouble when proactive policing leads to racially lopsided enforcement of the law.

A federal judge in 2013 declared New York's "stop and frisk" program unconstitutional and ordered reforms.

And this year, the U.S. Justice Department declared illegal certain biased tactics used by police in Ferguson, Mo., where 18-year-old Michael Brown, shot dead by an officer, was initially stopped for walking in the middle of the street.

In their investigation, officials highlighted the percentage of citations police wrote to blacks in Ferguson. They got 90 percent of tickets even though they make up only 67 percent of the population.

When it comes to bike tickets, Tampa's disparity is even more extreme.

In her written statement, Castor said the high number of tickets written to black cyclists in Tampa had nothing to do with their race.

As evidence, she cited the racial breakdown of people arrested in Tampa for driving drunk. Last year, 76 percent of them were white men.

"That does not mean we are targeting white males, it simply means that we are addressing a crime pattern," Castor wrote. "If those drivers weren't driving impaired, they would not be stopped. The same applies to bicyclists."

Sam Brooke, Deputy Legal Director of the Economic Justice Project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, said Times' findings reminded him of both Ferguson and "stop and frisk."

"If we authorize police to stop everyone walking down the street at all times, they would, of course, find people violating the law," Brooke said. "The question is, if we, as a society, should be tolerating that."

Bike stops have led to enough arrests that some Hillsborough County judges have begun to notice the racial disparity.

Typical of their defendants is 14-year-old Antonio Barnes, who sped home past the broken windows of Belmont Heights a couple of years ago, hoping to return borrowed headphones to a relative before the last bus of the night. He pedalled his unlit bike as fast as he could until he felt the spotlight of a police cruiser.

"I was so scared," he remembers. He had a small amount of marijuana in his pocket.

Almost instantly, the cops were out of their cruiser, ordering him to get off the bike, get his hand out of his pocket, tell them his name. Antonio couldn't even remember that. He was out of breath, soaked in sweat, staring at the light like a deer in traffic.

Did he have anything illegal on him they asked?

He told the truth and went to jail.

Circuit Judge Rex Barbas ultimately dismissed the case because officers didn't read Antonio his rights before questioning him. Most often, though, the cases stick, because officers can stop people for one reason even if they have another.

"It's legal," Barbas said. "But unfair."

Barbas spent three years hearing juvenile cases. He couldn't remember a single white kid arrested after a bike stop.

"We'd like to think we can all go about our lives without intrusion, without anybody looking in our pockets," said Judge Sheehan. "If we're all going to take a hard approach on bike riding without lights, then let's do it across the city and across the county."

Even if a stop amounts to no more than a bike ticket, it can still have lasting consequences.

Children as young as 11 have been ticketed and reported to collection agencies, the Times found.

The consequences worsen when they begin to drive.

Eric Davis, who grew up in one of the zones patrolled by the Bicycle Blitzkrieg squad, racked up 13 bike tickets as a teen.

The unpaid tickets triggered a driver's license suspension, which landed Davis in jail when he was caught behind the wheel of a car. Now 23, he has been deemed a "habitual traffic offender," even though he never got a single ticket for bad driving.

Davis said he didn't understand the implications when he got his first ticket at 15. "I didn't know it would go to my license," he said. "It's just nasty, man."

Despite the thousands of hours spent by police, court clerks, public defenders, prosecutors and judges on enforcement of bicycle laws, it's hard to tell what Tampa gets out of them.

Even though 2013 was one of the department's highest ticketing years, bike crashes still rose the following year by 20 percent. Bike thefts, too, climbed 15 percent.

Ticketed bicyclists are being arrested mostly for small drug busts or for misdemeanor charges that stem from their interaction with police during the stop, the Times found.

Castor said many people guilty of serious crimes are not issued a bike ticket during a stop. For that reason, the Times' analysis would not capture them.

"We continue to believe that our enforcement practices have reduced crime in Tampa," Castor said.

Time will tell if it works for Raymond Contreras.

In 2013, two officers spotted the 53-year-old as he rode his bicycle through a stop sign on a residential street. He was an easy arrest.

The previous year, the same two officers had stopped him on his bike and found cocaine under the rim of his hat. He did a week in jail and walked away from the courthouse owing just court costs.

Now here he was again, riding a bike, wearing a hat.

Another piece of crack, another felony case. After five months of court hearings and a seven-page motion to suppress by his public defender, Contreras walked away with a down-pleaded misdemeanor and more court costs.

Since 2008, Tampa police officers have ticketed Contreras 17 times for bicycle offenses from riding a bike without a light to riding more than "two abreast." Chief Castor said he's been stopped other times and issued only warnings.

Sometimes, they find a personal stash of drugs, sometimes they don't. He owes more than $1,000 in bike tickets and another $1,000 in court costs.

No one has collected a dime.

Times computer-assisted reporting specialist Connie Humburg, researcher Caryn Baird, data specialist Alexis N. Sanchez and photojournalist Octavio Jones contributed to this report. Reach Alexandra Zayas at or 727-893-8413. Follow @alexandrazayas. Reach Kameel Stanley at or 727-893-8643. Follow @cornandpotatoes. Designed by Alexis N. Sanchez.