With Rapid Response Grant, WABA Improves Police Enforcement for Bicyclists in DC
Feb 04, 2013
What should advocates do when bicyclists are consistently incorrectly cited by local police? The Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA) has a pretty good answer.
For the past several years, Shane Farthing, WABA’s executive director, had been aware of a disturbing pattern. Advocates consistently heard accounts from bicyclists who had been injured in crashes and had received citations that just didn’t make sense from Metropolitan Police Department officers. Many said they had been fined for breaking a law that was not applicable to the incident. In some cases, officers had assigned blame to an injured cyclist based only on a driver’s statement, without actually interviewing the bicyclist or witnesses. Some had even been cited for violating laws that did not exist.
These accounts led Shane and his employees to believe that MPD officers were not receiving adequate training on enforcing laws pertinent to bicyclists. In response, WABA launched a campaign “to advocate for and secure funding for the holistic training of MPD officers of the application of the law to bicyclists.”
The enforcement campaign kicked off in February of 2011, when WABA requested and received a DC Council Committee on the Judiciary hearing to assess MPD’s enforcement of laws pertaining to bicyclists. In response to the advocates’ testimony, the DC Office of Police Complaints issued a report confirming poor work by the Police Department. The report prompted several councilmembers and staffers to request that WABA provide better documentation of the types of incidents cyclists described in testimony.
WABA responded by launching its own online Crash Tracker tool in March of 2011. Bicyclists use the tracker on WABA’s web site to report relevant information if they are involved in a crash — type of crash, weather conditions, police report number, type of citation if any, and a detailed account of the event.
“After a second hearing, armed with the OPC report and data from the Crash Tracker, we noted the beginnings of improvements,” wrote Shane. “An MPD liaison for the cycling community was appointed, and after a long absence, an MPD representative began to attend the monthly Bicycle Advisory Committee meetings.”
But enforcement problems remained. “In early March 2012,” says Shane, “two serious crashes resulted in citations against the injured cyclists, again, with inapplicable and irrelevant code violations.”
In one case, a cyclist was incorrectly cited for violating DC’s “riding abreast” law. This DC law states that (a) it is illegal for more that two people to ride bicycles alongside each other in a roadway that is not a bike lane or path and (b) it is illegal for two people riding abreast to impede the normal flow of traffic. But in the March crash, the bicyclist was cited for riding alongside a vehicle, not alongside of two other riders and not impeding the flow of traffic. The responding officer had incorrectly applied the law.
Despite egregious errors, the police department did not indicate willingness to make meaningful changes.
“Every time we would go to testify, the MPD would say that they already had these trainings in place and there was no problem,” said Shane. “We were in a he-said-she-said situation.”
WABA’s biggest challenge was furnishing solid evidence. “The limitation we faced at every stage was a lack of data,” Shane recalled. “Our crash tracker had a small sample size.”
“So we decided to put together good FOIA requests to analyze these crash reports.” Using the Freedom of Information Act, WABA would obtain the actual police reports that were relevant to the trends advocates had spotted in Crash Tracker responses.
But FOIA requests take time — and money. “In DC, it’s 25 cents per page and it takes a lot of time to look through it all,” said Shane.
To support the FOIA requests, WABA applied for and received a Rapid Response grant from Advocacy Advance. Thanks to the grant, WABA obtained the crash reports; Shane, who has a background in law, spent significant time analyzing the reports.
Cover letter for the FOIA’d crash reports regarding “riding abreast” citations
He found clear evidence that the MPD had consistently interpreted the “riding abreast” law incorrectly.
“Looking at the crash reports for riding abreast citations, you can show on its face whether it’s legitimate or not,” said Shane. “Riding abreast requires two people on bikes, and citations we were looking at did not have the presence of another person. This showed that the police so fundamentally misunderstood this law that they were using it for the wrong thing.”
WABA has posted the FOIA’d crash reports online here and here.
With irrefutable proof in hand, WABA’s case grew stronger. “We moved from making assertions to using the evidence the police created,” said Shane. “We were able to approach MPD and say, ‘Look at the number of times your officers don’t know how to interpret what’s in front of them.’”
Armed with proof that MPD officers had consistently misinterpreted laws pertaining to cyclists, WABA successfully pushed for better bicycle-related enforcement training. Shane reported, “They agreed to create a webinar series to explain cyclist issues. MPD reached out to us to find cyclists who had been wrongfully cited to tell their stories on the video.”
“It’s a victory that materials are being created by people who understand the problem.”
Support from Advocacy Advance was an key part of WABA’s enforcement campaign. “The Rapid Response grant allowed us to get the data that we needed to move things forward,” said Shane. “Having the cash money in hand to make those requests was integral.”
Feeling inspired? Check out the documents below for more insight into WABA’s enforcement campaign.
Photos: Salovesh and thisisbossi, WABA Flickr Pool