I think we can all agree that theft is bad. But the solution that MPD is suggesting to curb the spree of bicyclists grabbing cell phones from Columbia Heights pedestrians is awful. NBC Washington reports that 3rd District officers are being urged to stop bicyclists and “if the rider cannot prove ownership, take the bike for safekeeping until they can prove ownership.”
Now, I’m no constitutional lawyer, but this sounds just a wee bit…well, contrary to pretty much all of our national values.
More prosaically, it’s also wildly impractical. Bike owners—unlike automobile owners—are not required to register their bikes, much less carry said registration with them. So unless you have a receipt at home, it’s incredibly difficult to prove that Schwinn is yours.
As one woman told the station’s reporter, she’s had her bike since she was 12, but has no proof that she’s the owner.
Oh, and then there’s that other pesky little problem: Racism! As it happened, the woman quoted in NBC Washington’s report was white. The likelihood of her getting stopped by a cop for theft is therefore incredibly small. That’s partly because the people regularly committing petty theft in Columbia Heights are unlikely to be white. But it creates some pretty ugly ugliness all the same.
These bicycle stops just beg to become D.C.’s own version of stop-and-frisk, New York City’s program that lets cops stop anyone who looks suspicious. And who looks suspicious? Blacks and Latinos, who make up nine out of 10 stops. Nine out of 10 people stopped there are also completely innocent. But under D.C.’s rules of engagement, they would be innocent and bikeless, since the cops would have locked up their rides over proof-of-ownership issues. As a nonwhite cyclist, I find this rather troubling.
Community policing—a term that means cops strategically get involved with the community so that they’re trusted and in the know instead of constantly cracking down on folks—is harder and more time consuming. But it could also be more effective and less racist than stopping random people on their bikes.
And anyway, taking bikes away likely means MPD will just end up storing them indefinitely. In a community where cops aren’t trusted, few people are willingly going to go into a police station to pick up their bikes.