StreetsBlogNYC: NYPD Commissioner: Bell Tickets Were a Tool to Stop a Bike Ride

An NYPD lieutenant tells kids why some of them got tickets for not having bells. Photo: Terry Barentsen via YouTube.

An NYPD lieutenant tells kids why some of them got tickets for not having bells. Photo: Terry Barentsen via YouTube.

By Julianne Cuba
May 3, 2019

The city’s top cop on Thursday admitted that he deployed dozens of his rank-and-file officers to Tompkins Square Park last month solely to stop what police believed would be an unruly bike ride — a misuse of power by law enforcement to harass people for a crime they had not even committed, critics said.

NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill’s confession comes about two weeks after more than 50 armed cops confiscated bikes from young adults, who were then handed tickets for not having bells — something even O’Neill was guilty of before handing back his “no-bell prize” this week, he said.

“It is an abuse of authority if the bicyclists were not misbehaving at the time. The police have other proactive measures at their disposal if they anticipate misbehavior. Most bicyclists do not have bells,” said Steve Wasserman, a staff attorney at The Legal Aid Society.

Cops had showed up in force to the “Race and Bake” event on April 20, which organizer Shardy Nieves said had nothing to do with marijuana, beyond puns. Police did not ticket anyone for weed that day — only riders of bikes without bells.

The officers showed Nieves a folder filled with printouts of his social media accounts advertising the sixth annual race and then arrested him for an unrelated 2015 open container warrant that a Bronx judge immediately tossed out.

O’Neill played dumb about Nieves’s arrest and avoided a question whether police regularly surveil people’s social media accounts to nab them for prior nonviolent offenses. Instead, he insisted that the cyclists wreak havoc on city streets and needed to be stopped — though he would not say if the riders targeted last month were involved in the dangerous riding that O’Neill said are in videos. The NYPD did not provide such evidence to reporters.

“This was a group, they meet periodically and there’s video out there — you got to take a look at what these bike groups do,” O’Neill said at an unrelated press conference on crime stats. “They ride en masse the wrong way up major avenues, they play chicken with buses and trucks.”

O’Neill said the targeted enforcement was a “tool” to prevent the annual “Race and Bake” ride from happening, and to stop the bikers’ allegedly bad behavior.

“This was a tool that the officers of Manhattan South used to prevent this behavior from happening that day,” said O’Neill.

Bike advocates had accused Mayor de Blasio and the NYPD of carrying out “misplaced priorities and racist policies” after the crackdown on the young cyclists — most of whom are people of color and bike messengers just trying to make a living in de Blasio’s “Fairest big city in America.”

But the admission that police preemptively decided to shut the event down is even more disturbing, and a clear display of stop and frisk, said Biking Public Project organizer Rosemary Bolich.

“The NYPD’s statement further shows that their actions were simply punitive and racist. They showed up to issue summonses and confiscate bikes based on predicted behavior, not actual behavior,” she said. “We should be encouraging young people to ride bikes instead of presenting them with yet another danger. This is just broken windows policing by another name.”