Bike citations have fallen sharply in Tampa, a positive trend that reaffirms the citations have been more about harassment than effective crime-fighting in poor neighborhoods. But the decrease does not lessen the need for a full and vigorous federal investigation into the Tampa Police Department and its racially lopsided practice of issuing bicycle tickets. This spring, the Tampa Bay Times found that Tampa police targeted bicyclists in largely poor black neighborhoods and ticketed them for minor offenses, in some cases needlessly introducing children to the criminal justice system for infractions such as riding on handlebars. Despite progress this summer reducing the number of citations, concerns about the department's aggressive ticketing remain justified.
The Times reported last week that police handed out 59 bike tickets from May through July, about a third of the number from the same period last year. Officers recorded fewer encounters with cyclists and the racial disparity in bike tickets issued to blacks narrowed, with 63 percent of the citations given to black cyclists this summer compared with 86 percent in 2014. The portion of juvenile tickets issued to black children also fell to 60 percent this summer from 94 percent during the same period last year.
The significant declines come in the wake of the Times' investigation in April into the Tampa Police Department's bike ticketing policy, which found that the department issued more bike tickets than any other law enforcement agency in the state. In the last three years, for example, Tampa police issued 2,504 bike tickets, nearly 80 percent to its black residents, who make up only a quarter of the city's population. Tickets were issued for violations ranging from riding without a bike light to cycling without hands on bike grips. Very few of those who were cited got arrested, though officers claimed they used the bike offenses as a gateway to try to ferret out more serious crimes.
Since the Times' investigation, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and the Police Department asked the U.S. Justice Department to examine the department's policy of enforcing bicycle laws. Tampa police also now track cycling-related stops and the number of bike lights its officers issue. So far this summer, officers have made 507 stops from May through July and given out 28 lights. The tracking is a good step toward transparency and greater accountability. But it is not enough.
Tampa police haven't admitted any wrongdoing, nor has the department suspended bike ticketing, which would have been the appropriate response pending the outcome of the Justice Department's investigation. The department and city officials seem to be biding their time, an attitude that underscores the importance of the federal examination. If there is to be lasting change in the department's policy, it will need to come at the behest of a Justice Department that speaks forcefully when it issues its report at the end of the year.
The department's grudging response has unnerved many in the public who contend the uneven enforcement of bicycle laws is a flash point for larger issues with policing in the African-American community. There are plenty of legitimate issues that deserve the attention of Tampa police. But racially profiling bicyclists for pedaling while black is not one of them.