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On an afternoon in March 2001, a 17-year-old District resident made eye contact with a couple of D.C. cops who were patrolling Columbia Heights in a squad car. The young man, who had apparently had some previous run-ins with the officers, was on a bicycle. As he headed north on 14th Street NW, he was told to pull off to the side of the road.
At a gas station, he was asked to spread his legs and put his hands on the cruiser. The officers frisked him, then baited him with a bit of trash talk, according to a written statement the young man later provided to the Metropolitan Police Department’s (MPD) citizens’-complaints office. (All names have been redacted from the report.) One of the cops told him that he’d eventually slip up and that when he did, the cop would be there to catch him.
The young man’s rejoinder: “I don’t see no banana peels out here to slip on.”
But no banana peels were necessary—just the bike he was riding on. The cops simply asked if he had a registration sticker for his wheels. Like the overwhelming majority of D.C. bike owners, he didn’t.
“They took my bike,” the young man wrote in his report.
And they did so lawfully. According to D.C. municipal regulations, any bicycle used by a District resident must be registered with the police department within two weeks after it’s purchased or brought into the city. If not, it can be impounded. (Most other area jurisdictions have voluntary registrations policies.) The city’s registration fee is negligible ($1), but bike-shop managers and cycling advocates estimate that 80 percent or more of city bike owners probably don’t bother with the process. Those who forgo it blame rigorous inspection regulations—proof of purchase is required, as well as a bicycle bell, a front light, and a rear light or reflector—and the frustration of going from one police or fire station to another in search of someone willing to do the paperwork.
Because of such low compliance, bike registration rarely accomplishes its stated purpose: returning stolen bikes to their rightful owners. Instead, the requirement may lead more often to complaints of police harassment and profiling, such as the one above, which was noted in a report issued by the police-complaints board this month. The board recommended that the department kill the policy and start collecting data on bike stops.
“These allegations of ‘bicycle harassment’ raise concerns about perceived bias in MPD’s interactions with members of the public who ride bikes in the District,” the report says. “The requirement that District residents register their bicycles with MPD has enabled selective enforcement of the law, has created a confusing legal framework in a metropolitan area where most jurisdictions do not require bike registration, and has strained police relationships with some members of the community.”
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On the books since 1972, the District’s registration policy has long provided enterprising cops with an extra bit of leverage when they come across a suspected perp on a bicycle. As was detailed in the report, an unregistered bike can open the door to a drug or weapon search. If a cop can’t find anything illicit on his subject, he can at least ticket him for not being registered or snag the two-wheeler as a sort of consolation prize.
“We use it as an enforcement tool,” explains Lt. Mike Smith, who patrols in Shaw. “A lot of times guys are suspected in drug deals and we’ll run across them on bikes. In those cases we just take the bike for not being registered.”
Such tactics often target particular demographic groups more than others, the complaint board found. Of the five specific incidents of alleged harassment detailed in the report, four of them revolved around black males, the fifth around left-wing protesters. According to one complaint, a 36-year-old District cyclist and his friends were told to disperse from a block of Longfellow Street NW or face fines for petty infractions such as jaywalking; ultimately, the officers ticketed the cyclist for bike infractions. “Two tickets,” the man wrote. “One for no helmet and the other [for] unregistered bicycle.” The former citation was illegitimate: According to D.C. law, adults are not required to wear helmets.
Eric Gilliland, executive director of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, an advocacy group for cyclists, says he’s heard plenty of bitter impoundment tales from area bikers over the years—and not necessarily from drug-dealing types. “It’s usually the same story,” says Gilliland. “They do a pretextual stop, and they’re pretty much guaranteed that someone’s bike is not registered. It really gives police a cause to stop a person and impound their bike.”
The same cops can make it awfully difficult to comply with the law. After Julie Eisenhardt and about 10 of her cyclist friends were pulled over by D.C. cops on a ride near Dupont Circle in 2002, the whole group decided to ride to the 3rd District station and get registered right then and there. “The woman at the desk looked at us like we were crazy,” says Eisenhardt, an Adams Morgan resident. The officer told the group that she was out of registration cards. Later, registrars at the firehouse around the corner demanded that the cyclists stamp the registration numbers into the bottom brackets of their bikes using metal dies and a mallet. “You don’t ever want to do that,” says Eisenhardt. “We kind of faked it, tapped it lightly….I have a couple of dents from that one.”
Even if you agree to mutilate your frame, there’s no assurance that your registration number will make the crucial leap from the log book to the actual computerized registry, which is part of the Washington Area Law Enforcement System, a regional criminal database. In fact, Smith, the Shaw cop, says he will sometimes run free registration drives in the city, luring as many as 40 bikers to do their civic duty, only to find out months later that the numbers never made it into the database. “I recovered a bike a couple weeks ago on a prostitution complaint,” he says. “There’s a registration sticker on there, but it’s not in the system. Whoever registered that particular bike, the station clerk or whoever had the responsibility, never put it in.”
Smith says that he’s probably seized more than 100 stolen bikes over the course of his career but returned maybe only a half-dozen to their rightful owners through the department’s registration system. Far more often, Smith says, he and other cops will find the owner through private parties, such as bike shops or national bike registries. Some city officials have taken note: Jim Sebastian, the District Department of Transportation’s bicycle-and-pedestrian-program manager, says his agency is in the process of drafting legislation for the D.C. Council that would take the onus of bike registration off the police department and place it on a company that specializes in tracking bikes through serial numbers. Registration would become voluntary. Sebastian, however, says he can’t offer a timeline for the switch.
Shaw Bega, service manager at the City Bikes shop in Chevy Chase, Md., says a proper system should work through the shops that actually sell the bikes. “It’s always been a good idea,” he says of registration in general. “That said, to keep the bikes of 500,000 residents registered on loose-leaf notebooks at police stations is a horrendous concept.”CP