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  1. Opinion

Editorial: Justice confirms failures of Tampa's bike tickets

Published Apr. 26, 2016

The Justice Department's comprehensive report on the Tampa Police Department's common practice of stopping black bicyclists and issuing tickets confirms this discredited strategy had nothing to do with smart crime-fighting and everything to do with harassment in poor neighborhoods. The 84-page report released Tuesday finds disproportionately stopping black cyclists did not improve bicycle safety, reduce bike thefts or lower crime in high-crime communities. Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and police Chief Eric Ward accepted the findings with the right spirit, and now they should swiftly adopt the recommended reforms.

Buckhorn deserves credit for inviting the Justice Department's Office of Community Oriented Policing Services to examine the police department's enforcement of bicycling laws last year following a Tampa Bay Times investigation. The Times found that the department issued more bicycle tickets than any other law enforcement agency in the state. In three years, Tampa police issued more bike tickets than St. Petersburg, Jacksonville, Miami and Orlando combined. Nearly 80 percent of those tickets went to blacks, who make up 26 percent of the city's population. Those disparities look suspiciously like racial profiling, and the city asked for the federal review and sharply decreased the number of bike tickets after the newspaper's investigation.

The Justice Department's analysis found a similar disparity. Between January 2014 and August, it found 73 percent of the bicycle stops in Tampa involved black cyclists. They accounted for just 40 percent of bike crashes, and those who were stopped were more likely to be cited than white cyclists. Those are not statistics any police department should be proud of, and the federal report finds no evidence that the department's practices were aimed at improving bicycle safety or reducing bicycle thefts.

Yet the Justice Department let Tampa police off the hook by buying the department's last argument: The bicycle stops were a well-intentioned proactive effort to suppress crime. Never mind that it wasn't effective, or that the department sharply curtailed the practice after it was exposed. While the federal report stops short of labeling the bike stops as racial profiling, it notes: "It is difficult to say whether the observed racial disparities are due to racial discrimination by the TPD or other factors. …''

"The bottom line appears to be that the TPD burdened black bicyclists by disproportionately stopping them in the name of benefiting black communities by increasing their public safety,'' the report says. "Yet our analyses indicate that TPD's bicycle enforcement did not produce a community benefit in terms of bicycle safety, bicycle theft, or crime generally but did burden individual bicyclists, particularly black bicyclists in high crime areas of Tampa.''

Translation: Give the police department the benefit of the doubt with regard to motive, but regardless of intent the disparities in bike stops inflicted unnecessary pain on black residents.

The Justice Department makes a number of smart recommendations, including reducing bike stops, better documenting the reasons for bike stops, closer monitoring of racial disparities and better explaining police policies to the community. The mayor and the police chief sounded the right notes on Tuesday, seizing upon no finding of discrimination and pledging to implement the recommendations. "We are not perfect,'' Buckhorn said, "and we will continue to grow and we will continue to learn.''

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That is the right attitude. The next step is to follow through with the right actions.

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