A Snapshot of Enforcement in the District

As Washcycle covered in a recap of last night’s DC Bicycle Advisory Council meeting, last week’s crash at 11th and U Streets, NW has drawn the attention not just of media and blogs, but senior officers at MPD as well.

Initially, the cyclist was cited for (1) not wearing a helmet, (2) running a red light, and (3) failure to yield.

The first citation was clearly incorrect, as adults are not required to wear helmets in the District, and WABA and others expressed concerns over that wrongful citation. On the other citations, little detail was provided that would allow WABA or others to know what actually happened, but we did ask officials to ensure that the cyclist was interviewed as part of the report and able to tell his side of the story.

Last night, we learned from MPD representatives at the BAC that the incorrect ticket for failure to wear a helmet will be dismissed and that the cyclist was interviewed.

So looking at the handling of this crash so far, how does it reflect on our efforts to improve enforcement? What does this tell us about our progress over the past year, through several bike safety oversight hearings, an Office of Police Complaints Report, and an increased focus on the issue from WABA and the BAC’s Safety Committee?

Initially, an incorrect citation was issued. But on further review, MPD dismissed that ticket. And importantly, the officer reports that she did interview the cyclist to get his side of the story.

These are significant steps. We have not seen a full culture change at MPD in which all officers apply the law to bicyclists properly and there is still a significant “windshield perspective” issue that often affects crash responses. But the fact that, in this case, a mechanism was in place to ensure that the police’s response would be reviewed by a more senior officer with an understanding of the substantive bicycle law and the ongoing procedural concerns surrounding bicycle crashes shows progress.

We still have a long way to go to overcome that “windshield perspective” and fundamental lack of knowledge among the officers who might respond to bike crashes. In most cases that are not listed as Major Crashes or that receive less publicity, this review mechanism may not prove similarly effective or available. Thus, we will continue to push for better training and improvements at all levels of MPD regarding bicycle enforcement.

But we want to acknowledge that in this case, the Department had the procedure in place and the appropriate oversight to seemingly get it right.

The past year’s focused efforts have helped us get to a place in which we have support within MPD from people like Commander James Crane, Lieutenant Nick Breul, and Sergeant Terry Thorne, who are able to understand, address and facilitate the concerns of bicyclists at the highest level within the Department when necessary.

WABA will continue to focus on enforcement, and on ensuring that officers who respond to each crash–not just those listed as Major Crashes or those that garner such public attention–know the law and apply it properly and fairly. But as we have spent months pointing out the cases in which MPD got it wrong. Today, we want to point out the progress that has been made that led to their ultimately getting it right.

There is undoubtedly more work to be done and we will continue to do it. But last night’s report from MPD representatives at the BAC allowed us to see a snapshot of how far MPD has progressed in its handling of bicycling issues. The fact that three officers, knowledgeable in the law as applied to bicycling and the concerns raised by bicyclists, sat in front of the BAC, explained in detail the Department’s response to this crash, and ultimately reached a conclusion that accurately represented the cyclist and his actions proves that law enforcement agencies can move forward.