DOJ Bicycle Report: Thoughts and Analysis

The Justice Department has released its report (pdf) of the Tampa Police Department’s bicycle enforcement program. In 2015 the Tampa Bay Times called the program out for the overwhelming percentage of tickets given to black versus white riders. As a result of the article, the Justice Department decided to conduct its own study of the program.

According to the Times’ investigation nearly 8 out of every 10 bicyclists stopped and given a ticket were black. 80%. Compare that with the actual percentage of black residents, which is about 26%, and you begin to see the sheer disparity. Whenever there’s a disparity of this magnitude it’s evidence that the program is targeting black people. And when that could potentially be the case, the Justice Department looks for what it calls a “race-neutral” reason for the program – one that’s not simply “we wanted to arrest black people.”

The Tampa PD had three (of what it calls) race neutral reasons for the program:

  1. improving bicycle safety,
  2. reducing bicycle theft, and
  3. preventing crimes in high crime areas using bicycle stops as part of a proactive policing strategy.

The first two reasons were soundly debunked by the data. From the DOJ report:

White people make up 49 percent of bicycle crashes but account for 26 percent of stops, and Black people account for 40 percent of bicycle crashes and 73 percent of stops

Ah. But what about reducing bicycle theft?

While returning stolen bicycles to their rightful owners is a laudable goal, one in 280 bicycle stops resulted in this outcome.

Oh. So maybe it was the third reason?

Simply stated, this report finds evidence that the TPD used bicycle enforcement as part of an overall proactive crime reduction strategy rather than through a strategic focus on reducing bicycle thefts or injuries.

It wasn’t that more bicycle infractions happen in the areas TPD patrolled, it’s that TPD believed that by cracking down on minor infractions in these high-crime areas it could crack down on other crimes as well. In other words, TPD was looking for a reason to detain bicyclists and search their pockets or run an outstanding warrant check. The high-crime areas also happen to have a much higher percent of black residents than other areas. As noted in the report, a racial disparity isn’t the same thing as racial discrimination. They just look awfully similar at the end of the day, like when someone does the wrong thing for the right reason, versus doing the same wrong thing for the wrong reason.

Let’s go back to the reasons, well, reason, for the bicycle program. If the reason was to prevent crime in high-crime areas, then there should be a decrease of crime in high-crime areas after the program started. Or so you would think. From the report:

The effect of bicycle stops on Part 1 crimes appears to be small, but our estimate is imprecise. Using the sharp reduction in bicycle stops after the TBT article was published as a natural experiment on the effect of bicycle stops on crime in Tampa, we find that the effect of this sharp reduction in bicycle stops is somewhere between an 8 percent drop in crime and an 18 percent increase in crime. Given this imprecise effect, the most conservative interpretation of this analysis is that the reduction in bicycle stops had no discernible effect on crime.

Let’s clarify: after the Tampa Bay Times article criticizing the bicycle program came out the number of bicycle stops went off a cliff. After the number of stops went off a cliff, the crime rate either went down 8% or went up 18%. So in reality there wasn’t any real effect on the crime rate.

Ultimately the DOJ concluded that TPD’s bicycle enforcement program was doing the wrong thing for the right reasons:

We have no doubt the TPD’s use of bicycle stops is an earnest effort to reduce crime in high crime, most often Black communities, yet these efforts have disproportionately burdened Black bicyclists.

It’s hard to balance the rights of individuals against keeping the community safe. What sometimes seems ok to the cops and prosecutors (burdening the many to incarcerate the few) doesn’t square with what the Fourth Amendment actually says (“the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated”). What if the cost of zero crime is constant, unrestrained enforcement though the pervasive invasion of privacy?

According to the report:

The TPD burdened Black bicyclists by disproportionately stopping them, with the intention of benefiting Black communities by increasing their public safety.

Again – the wrong thing for the right reason. Like Lenny Small, loving and protecting something to death. I’ve written about the dangers of constant surveillance and enforcement before, and how it always seems to target “high crime” (read – “high minority population”) areas. Since the TBT article the Tampa Police Department has stopped its bicycle enforcement program. Let’s hope that the next program is better thought-out.