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Tampa police's racially biased "bicycle blitzkrieg" shows there are Fergusons everywhere

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A Tampa Bay Times investigation concluded that Florida police are targeting people riding bikes in poor black neighborhoods for minor — and sometimes, imaginary — offenses, as an excuse to question what a department memo called "potential criminals." In practice, "potentials criminals" translates to "African Americans."

According to the Times, officers have figured out a way to use "an 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."

The resulting statistics are striking. Eight out of 10 bike riders stopped in Tampa from 2003 year to 2015 were black, meaning they received 79 percent of the bike tickets despite making up a quarter of the city's population. But the narratives that go along with these numbers are nearly unbelievable.

Here are some of the stories from the Times's report on the study, which analyzed over 10,000 bike tickets issued over a period of 12 years:

  • After a 56-year-old black man rode his bike through a stop sign while pulling a lawnmower, police handcuffed him while they confirmed that he had not stolen the lawnmower, but borrowed it from a friend.
  • Police confiscated the bike of a 54-year-old black man because he didn't have a receipt proving that it belonged to him.
  • A 63-year-old black man was stopped for not having lights on his bike, when he did actually have lights on his bike.
  • After a 33-year-old man ran a stop sign on a bike without a light, police officers punched, kicked, and choked him until he was unconscious. Later, the officers explained to a judge why they were suspicious that he may have had a weapon on him: "He was in a high-crime area," and "He had large clothing." ("Was he black, too?" the judge asked. She dismissed the criminal charges.)

"It's possible blacks in some areas use bicycles more than whites. But that's not what's driving the disparity," the paper concluded. "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 isn't just speculation. A 2007 department memo uncovered by the Times outlining what officers called "Bicycle Blitzkrieg" made it plain that goal was  "to aggressively enforce bicycle infractions ... where there has been increased criminal activity ... opening more avenues to make arrests."

Officers weren't stopping individuals because they were individually suspicious. They were stopping them because of where they lived — a factor that, of course, went hand in hand with their race. Bicycle infractions simply provided a cover.

That means that in Tampa, residents essentially lived under two different sets of laws, determined by their race and neighborhood, and that black people truly couldn't do something as simple as riding a bike in the same way that white people could. Apparently officers were fine with that.

Echoes of Ferguson

The report is a reminder that systemic discrimination against African-American residents in Ferguson, Missouri, that fueled the response to Michael Brown's death at the hands of a white police officer was not unique to that city.

There, the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division investigated and concluded that police department and municipal courts system routinely violated the constitutional rights of black residents. It detailed its findings in a report released in March, which revealed that race had everything to do with who was stopped by police, and whom they used force against. Here are some highlights from the DOJ's Ferguson report:

  • African Americans made up 67 percent of the population, but between 2012 and 2014, they made up 85 percent of the people pulled over by police.
  • Between 2012 and 2014, black drivers were twice as likely to have their cars searched, but they were 26 percent less likely to have contraband.
  • Between 2010 and August 2014, 88 percent of the documented use of force was against African Americans.
  • Every time a person was bitten by a police dog, the person was black.
  • The FPD brought certain charges almost exclusively against African Americans. For example, in 2013 black residents made up a full 95 percent of manner of walking in roadway charges, and 94 percent of all failure to comply charges.
  • Between 2011 and 2013, African-American drivers got 72 percent of the speeding tickets when radars or laser verification were used, but when tickets were based on officers' personal observations, they got 80 percent of the tickets.

There's been no such federal investigation in Tampa, but it's easy to see the parallels. And to some observers, the record of who's been stopped, and why, speaks for itself. As Joyce Hamilton Henry, director of advocacy for the ACLU of Florida, told to the Tampa Bay Times, "If it's not racial profiling, what is it?"