Are People Of Color Harassed By Law Enforcement?


A recent NPR story titled, “Biking while Black means you’ll probably get stopped more often,” highlighted a recent Minneapolis study showing that Black bicyclists are stopped more often for minor violations than white bicyclists, and escalation resulted in a disproportionate number of citations and even arrests of Blacks on bikes.  

This report follows stories of similar events in other cities, such as the Tampa Bay Times stories in 2016 that triggered a U.S. Department of Justice investigation revealing 8 of 10 bicycle citations were issued to African Americans, where they make up only 25% of the local population.  And the New York City “Stop and Frisk” policy that seemed to target and harass people of color on bicycles – who are more prone to be bicycle couriers and have delivery-by-bike jobs.

Charles Brown and James Sinclair, researchers at the Rutgers Voorhees Transportation Center, studied bicycling among Blacks and Latinos, and found that one in five Black and Latino males surveyed felt they had at some point been unfairly stopped by police (while on bicycle).  Black residents in those communities indicated police harassment as a barrier to bicycling.  To them, bicycling makes one too vulnerable to be worth it.

A question being asked as bicycle transportation is experiencing growth in cities nationwide is, whether this “Biking while Black” phenomenon is real.  Are African Americans and people of color on bicycles being unfairly targeted, profiled, and harassed by law enforcement nationwide?

My own personal experience as a longtime African American bicycle rider supports the legitimacy of this concern.  I have been riding bicycles all of my adult life.  I have been stopped and/or detained by police eleven times – in metro Philadelphia and in metro Atlanta.  Very few of those stops had anything to do with violating the law and none of those police stops resulted in a citation (because I was not doing anything wrong).  But that did not prevent the stop, and the subsequent line of questioning.  My experience plausibly points out that a Black person on a bicycle is viewed and treated differently by law enforcement.

How can this be remedied?  An obvious solution – is for law enforcement to stop the active profiling of particular groups of cyclists.  And stop the targeted sting operations.  Discontinue these practices.  But what about those unjustified stops and harassment that are not a part of intentional profiling or part of a canvassing campaign?  How can the police stops that happen sporadically or at the spur of a moment be diminished?  I believe the harassment will lessen when it is considered customary for people of color to be on bicycles.  Law enforcement gets suspicious too often when they see a Black or Latino male on a bicycle.  When the appearance of people of color on bicycles is seen as routine and normal – especially with young males, there is less of a compelling need to investigate.  When it becomes a standard sight, every Black male on a bicycle is not viewed as a potential criminal.


Here are some means to foster equitable treatment on bicycle:


Educate law enforcement, and hold them accountable

In many cases, stops of people of color on bicycles originate from the assertion that a traffic safety law is being violated, such as riding on the sidewalk, wearing earbuds while riding, or not wearing a helmet.  Police made the stop because they alleged that a law had been broken – when in fact, no law was broken.  Police should know the law as it pertains to cyclists – and cease to stop a bicycle rider for taking the lane, wearing headphones, or not wearing a helmet.

Three of my police stops had to do with sidewalks.  Once, while taking the lane with my bicycle, a police officer driving in the opposite direction stopped me, lectured me, and told me to get onto the sidewalk.  When I told him it wasn’t lawful, he more aggressively ordered me onto the sidewalk.  A few weeks later I was stopped by police while riding on that same sidewalk, and ordered to get onto the street.  And another time I was walking my bicycle on a sidewalk and stopped by law enforcement – who told me that walking a bicycle on the sidewalk was not permitted, and then asked for ID with further questioning.

Law enforcement should know the cyclists rights to the road, and be held accountable when they stop a cyclist based on a misunderstanding, misinterpretation, or personal opinion of what applies.

Be vigilant when riding solo

Most of the bicycling stops of minorities recorded and reported occur with a solo bicyclist.  It is not a group that gets detained, rather an individual bike rider.  That has been my experience as well.  Although I ride with other individuals and do many group rides, all of my police stops occurred when I was riding solo.  It appears as if police are more prone to stop, question, and or detain a solo rider.  Therefore it behooves the solo bicycle rider to be more vigilant and not invite police intervention.  Follow the rules of the road, and ride legally.  I am not placing blame on the cyclist; but suggest riding defensively to minimize unwarranted attention.

Put cycling infrastructure into and through minority neighborhoods

To encourage more people of color onto bicycles, make the roads they are inclined to be on bike-friendly.  Communities of color have been documented to have less of the infrastructure that keeps pedestrians and bicyclists safe.  Cities should make political and financial commitments so that every neighborhood has bike lanes and safe streets.  This will get more people onto bicycles, and get law enforcement more accustomed to seeing Blacks and Latinos on bicycles.

Establish bike share that is inclusive and equitable, with a system that serves all demographics

A bike share system that serves everyone and is reasonably priced can be a catalyst for greater numbers of bicycle riders in minority communities.  And if the bike share system is sponsored by the city, the city becomes invested in creating an atmosphere that encourages bicycle riding by all people.

From what I’ve seen in cities across the country, the early stages of bike share installations are concentrated in the more affluent neighborhoods and within the central business & government district of the city.  If a bike share system is to be installed, then there should be stations in communities of color, and in marginalized communities.  This can help remove racial profiling of Blacks on bicycles, because their use of the bike share system would be considered normal.  Authorities would become adjusted to seeing Blacks on bikes, and cease to perceive it as reason to stop and interrogate.

Further, since bike share bicycles are not easy to steal – and are intended for public use, the suspicion that a bike has to be stolen is removed.  Bike share can be a tool of improvement by removing a police excuse for bicycle traffic stops, and be a remedy by establishing a norm for Blacks on bicycles.

Develop and encourage bicycle clubs that celebrate under-represented demographics

Cycling clubs that organize people of color, and cater to their needs are a good thing.  These groups can educate their communities, support and build confidence in the new rider and rally involvement on causes that will benefit cyclists in the community.  They can be successful at making bike riding more comfortable for their neighbors, and their collective can also be a voice for equitable treatment.

Anything done to remove the perception that a person of color on a bicycle is a safety threat or has nefarious intent thwarts justification for the police stop.  Getting more underrepresented people on bicycles helps to achieve this.


**Guest author, Steven Cousins, is a Board Member with the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition.