OPINION: Make City Cops Bike Their Precincts

An annual requirement to ride in the bike lanes would go a long way toward changing their 'windshield perspective.'

NYPD officers showed off their patrol bikes to Streetsblog in 2012.
NYPD officers showed off their patrol bikes to Streetsblog in 2012.

The NYPD is the agency tasked with traffic enforcement in a city in which reckless drivers create dangers for cyclists, but it seems as if the cops always would rather crack down on cyclists than on the unlawful behavior of drivers. Whenever a cyclist fatality or serious injury occurs, the police respond by handing out pamphlets — to cyclists. They’ve repeatedly taken to ticketing cyclists for doing things that aren’t even illegal.

Jeremy Posner
Jeremy Posner

For this reason and others, many ordinary bikers and cycling advocates, with some justice, see cops as having a “windshield perspective.” There may be a way to help change this perspective, however. Just as NYPD officers are being asked to get out of their cars more often as part of community policing, they should experience cycling on the streets they police.

The perception of cops as exponents of the car culture does not come out of nowhere. One of the few requirements for becoming an NYPD officer is to possess a valid driver’s license. In a city in which a minority of households own cars, our police force consists entirely of drivers. Police precincts are surrounded by large numbers of illegally parked cars, because most officers — a majority of whom live outside of the city — would never consider commuting by any other means, while the communities they police are full of people who commute by some combination of foot, transit, and bike, rarely setting foot in a car. The result is chaos around stationhouses that is symbolic of police indifference to the way their constituents live.

The current trend of community policing asks the officers assigned to an area to strive to be extended members of the local community, rather than outsiders. This thrust has led to a bit of a movement to get some officers on foot again, which is a start, because it’s impossible to be a part of a community of people who don’t drive when you’re always behind the wheel. Yet even in this cyclists are on the outside looking in when it comes to the community being policed. Whether behind the wheel or on foot, officers see us as “other,” and treat us as such.

That’s why every officer, from the newest patrol officer to the precinct commander, should be required to ride bikes along every bike lane in their precinct’s coverage area at least once a year. (Most precincts have a few patrol bikes on hand.) They should do so in plain clothes, so they see what it’s like to be a regular person trying to ride a bike lawfully and safely through the neighborhood.

I challenge the next mayor and police commissioner to institute such a requirement — particularly if the next mayor, as seems likely, is Eric Adams, a former NYPD captain and daily cyclist. Who knows this question better than he?

This shouldn’t be a stretch. Officers regularly must re-certify their proficiency with guns, and they must keep their driver’s licenses current. Bike riding is an important element of being part of the community. Even if they don’t ride bikes in the neighborhood regularly, they should have had the experience of doing so. 

One of the biggest impediments to cycling in New York City is the perpetual risk posed by bigger vehicles on the road. The city’s network of bike lanes is of inconsistent quality, and even the supposed gold standard of bike lanes — so called “protected” bike lanes — leave riders subject to an endless barrage of drivers failing to yield, pedestrians stepping into the lane without looking, doors of parked cars opening into the lane, deliveries being made across the lane, and even drivers trying to parallel park from the bike lane side of the parking lane. And those are the best of the bike lanes.

Cops would understand much more about cycling if they felt the sudden terror of a turning car nearly hitting them as they traverse an intersection in a protected bike lane. They should have the feeling of being forced out of an unprotected bike lane by a double parked car, only to get honked at by an SUV. They should learn first hand how a tolerance for casual disregard of laws by drivers puts cyclists in real danger. They should see how cars blocking the box often block the bike lane, forcing bikes into traffic.

I’m under no illusion that such a policy suddenly would turn the NYPD into a pro-bike institution. But I’m hopeful that maybe it would get officers to pay just a little more attention to the violations that hurt cyclists the most. Change is slow, but this would be a low cost way to begin to shift perceptions.

Frequent cyclist Jeremy Posner (@jmp_nyc) lives on the Upper East Side.