I was pulled over on my bike recently for "disobeying a stop sign and failure to stop," but I'm not about to complain. Fair enough: it was my own stupid fault. The officer asked for my licence and proceeded to fill out the paperwork, handing me a $90 ticket.
Currently, the police department is running a citywide program called Cycle Right. Aimed at reducing cycling-related collisions, Cycle Right attempts to achieve its goal "through awareness, education and enforcement," at least according to the press release issued to kick off the campaign.
But the officer who issued my ticket opted to bypass the first two strategies. My encounter with him seemed more like a transaction than an interaction, which left me wondering if the true aim of the campaign isn't to discourage cycling - and fill police coffers in the process.
This officer failed to inform me not only of the campaign itself, but also of the legal definition of a complete stop, which involves placing one foot on the ground. As a result, I was none the wiser on the issue of cyclist safety.
Sergeant Devin Kealy of Traffic Services, like his fellow officers, says the force is very concerned about the number of cycling-related accidents - one fatality and 1,013 injuries in 2003. He says the police have a strong mandate to promote education and awareness when dealing with cyclists. Mostly, this takes the form of putting out a brochure about bike safety (available at police stations across the city).
But when I ask about the protocol for dealing with cyclists they've pulled over, Kealy says, "It's up to the individual officer's discretion."
In other words, no clear position seems to have emerged regarding how police should promote safety awareness through dialogue with cyclists.
Advocacy for Respect for Cyclists (ARC) rejects the idea of campaigns like Cycle Right. The group gives the police a failing grade of "F" in its recently released annual report on cycling in the city, arguing that the cops' see their role as more punitive than educational.
"The police service's treatment of cyclists continues to be of great concern," the report says, "and a significant deterrent to cycling."
If you look at police charging patterns during Cycle Right campaigns, it's not difficult to see why.
According to ARC, 700 charges were laid against cyclists and 700 cautions issued during Cycle Right in 2002. During last year's blitz, however, that number ballooned to more than 2,200 charges and 800 cautions - even though "the stated primary goal of the campaign is educational."
The report goes on to note that the violations police list in connection with "aggressive riding" - among them, riding on sidewalks or riding the wrong way down one-way streets - are "in many cases, the best, safest choice a cyclist may have."
And that "in labelling these ways of riding as aggressive, police convey an anti-cycling stance to the rest of the service [and] the general public."
ARC's Rick Conroy says there are other ways the police could reduce deaths and accidents among cyclists, chief among them targeting drivers whose actions, like driving in designated bicycling lanes, put cyclists at risk.
I don't want to believe that the police have an agenda. But encounters like mine make you wonder when they act more like cashier clerks than police officers.