NYPD’s Fifth Precinct Goes for a Ride With Street Safety Advocates

Traffic safety advocates pose with members of the Fifth Precinct before yesterday's bike ride. Photo: Stephen Miller
Advocates hope open lines of communication with NYPD’s Fifth Precinct will lead to better traffic enforcement priorities. Photo: Stephen Miller

NYPD’s Fifth Precinct doesn’t have a great reputation for safety-focused traffic enforcement. Known for ticketing cyclists at T-intersections and at the base of the Manhattan Bridge, the precinct has relied on questionable math to back up its disproportionate focus on bike enforcement. Seeking to bridge the divide, a group of about 10 people went for a bike ride with precinct officers yesterday.

“It began with a Twitter spat,” said Doug Gordon, who tweets as @BrooklynSpoke and regularly rides through the Fifth Precinct on his way to and from the Manhattan Bridge.

After a motorist killed a pedestrian nearby, Gordon got the attention of Sergeant Kakit Yip, who monitors the precinct’s Twitter account in addition to being its traffic safety officer.

Gordon and a group including representatives from Transportation Alternatives met with Yip at the precinct late last month for more than an hour. “It was pretty impressive. It was really nice that he gave that much time to us,” Gordon said. “Sergeant Yip was very open, very willing to listen.”

“He gave us a lot of clarifications on things,” said Hilda Cohen, who frequently rides in the precinct. For example, Yip said that red light stings are usually done by the Citywide Traffic Task Force, not the precinct.

“It was really quite positive,” Cohen said. “I came out of the whole meeting feeling like this is what we want to have happen. We really want to have this communication.”

Gordon sees neighborhood advocates’ relationship with the 78th Precinct in Park Slope — which has launched crosswalk stings, adopted a bike lanecleared sidewalks of police vehicles, and installed a bike corral — as a model. “Because of our experience with the 7-8, it did make approaching the precinct with the idea of a meeting seem possible,” Gordon said. “It didn’t seem like there was this big blue wall between us and the police officers.”

On yesterday’s ride, advocates pointed out problems like an NYPD observation tower parked in the Chrystie Street bike lane, while officers told drivers parked in bike lanes to move along. “There’s a big sense of traffic calming when you have a few bicycles with ‘NYPD’ on the back of the t-shirt,” Cohen said. “That would be a great way to ride my commute!”

While advocates were encouraged by the precinct’s willingness to engage with them, its enforcement priorities still leave much to be desired.

Yip said his precinct typically issues three bicycle tickets for every two traffic violations it gives to drivers. The precinct has issued fewer than one speeding ticket per day so far this year through the end of July. The rate of failure-to-yield enforcement is even lower, barely surpassing one ticket every other day [PDF].

The focus on bike enforcement, according to Yip, helps nab people on bikes who snatch phones and other valuables from people on foot. “Of course we have to hit hard on the bicyclists, because we don’t know who are the criminals,” Yip said. “So that adds up to stopping more bicycles.”

Yip also blamed pedestrian deaths in the precinct on jaywalking and said the precinct is focused on pedestrian education. “People, they don’t look at traffic,” he said. “They just cross.”

“You do see how entrenched that windshield mentality is among NYPD officers, and how challenging that can be in changing perspectives,” Gordon said. “You kind of have to chip away at that windshield perspective in every way possible, and this is one step toward doing that.”

“It takes years to change the culture,” Cohen said.

There is some common ground. Advocates are asking DOT to upgrade the Chrystie Street bike lanes into a two-way protected path, a concept that interested Yip. “If there’s a barrier… there of course would be no vehicles parked in the bike lane. So that would require no enforcement and at the same time, bicyclists are safer,” he said.

In the meantime, Yip and the advocates are already talking about following up yesterday’s bike ride with a walk in the next few months.