Tensions between the LAPD and a group of hard-core bicyclists boiled over this spring, despite efforts by both sides to smooth over their history of bad relations.
Relations between the police and pedal-power activists, many of whom are ardent environmentalists, seemed to reach the bottom of a Gulf oil well in January, when cyclist Ed Magos, who works for the city's Information Technology Agency, was hit downtown by a woman who left the scene only to report the collision at the neighboring Rampart Division station.
The woman was not cited for suspicion of hit-and-run. Magos ended up in the hospital.
Relations with the LAPD took another dark turn on the last Friday of May, when the bicycling group Critical Mass organized a ride — almost flash-mob style — to protest British Petroleum's role in the Gulf oil spill.
Without notice to police or a permit to stage a demonstration on public streets, a peloton of more than 400 riders took over Hollywood streets en route to a BP-owned station in Beverly Hills.
At Hollywood Boulevard and Highland Avenue, a large group of bicyclists apparently continued through the intersection as a light turned red. Some riders allege that police then pulled cyclists off their bikes, stuck batons through spokes and drove squad cars into the group to try to stop the riders and cite them for traffic infractions.
The incidents came against a backdrop of mutual distrust. Police often regard the cyclists as traffic scofflaws who can behave irresponsibly and antagonistically to further a political agenda.
Many cyclists, notably the members of Critical Mass, believe police fail to take strong action against the drivers of cars in hit-and-run accidents. They also think police issue needless tickets for equipment violations and rolling stops and treat participants in group rides like gang members.
At last month's BP protest, rider Manuel Gallegos stopped to film the scene on his iPhone: Sirens, whistles, hooting and hollering can be heard at the boisterous demonstration. Then an officer appears to throw a kick in the cyclist's direction.
Gallegos draws attention to himself. “Oh, oh, oh,” he shouts at the officer who threw the kick. “What the fuck was that for?” Soon two officers are seen, appearing to take him down.
Even before Gallegos' allegations of police mistreatment surfaced late last week, the officers seen on his video were in trouble. The day after the video went up on YouTube, the department announced an investigation and took four officers off active duty.
Commander Jorge Villegas, the LAPD's liaison to the cycling community, told the Weekly, “When viewing the video, we were disappointed in what we saw, and as a result, we made sure that, immediately on Saturday morning, I was making calls to the cycling community to take immediate action to identify those officers involved and remove them from the field.”
Last Friday, Gallegos filed a claim against the LAPD and the city for the officers' alleged “assault, battery, false arrest, false imprisonment, malicious prosecution and intentional infliction of emotional distress” against him during the ride, according to a statement issued by his lawyers.
He says the cops kicked him while he was down and that at least one officer stomped on his iPhone in an attempt to destroy evidence of the kick.
“They basically tackled him off of his bike, put him on the ground,” says one of Gallegos' attorneys, Rick Copeland.
Critical Mass has had run-ins with police in other cities, including New York, where relations have been sour since 250 bicyclists were arrested in a 2004 demonstration connected to the Republican National Convention. In 2008 a New York police officer was put on desk duty after video showed him taking down a Critical Mass rider.
In Los Angeles, “We're seeing the LAPD — some officers, not all — wielding unnecessary power, dealing with these group rides more in ways they would deal with gangs,” says Aurisha Smolarski, campaigns and communication director of the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition.
Before the Critical Mass incident, police had made progress in a campaign to make the department more understanding of and responsive to the plight of L.A. bicycle activists. Los Angeles may be the capital of global car culture, but there's a stubborn movement to make it more bike-friendly. The Magos collision downtown raised the right eyebrows. As cyclists used the incident to note that nearly one in four car-versus-bicycle collisions are hit-and-runs, police leaders decided to retrain all officers on cyclists' rights.
For the first time, the department addressed equal protection under traffic laws for riders. LAPD brass attended monthly meetings with bike-community leaders, and established a cyclists'-issues task force. And, a special order is expected any day now to put car-versus-bike investigations under the jurisdiction of one of the department's four traffic divisions, taking the cases away from beat cops.
In February, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck told the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition, “We hear you, we know we need to do a better job for you.”
The Critical Mass clash seems to have slowed some of that Kumbaya momentum, however. If officers had shown more restraint, Critical Mass' lawless behavior on the ride would have been the focus of news coverage. The group often defies traffic laws, stops in intersections to have riders twirl bikes over their heads and encourages traffic disruption to make a point about the environmental superiority of bikes over cars.
“Critical Mass leans toward an in-your-face attitude,” says Joe Borfo, a pseudonymous participant of another cyclists' group, Midnight Ridazz. “You get teens on their 'fixies' after school, and some of them are just looking to cause trouble.”
While groups such as Midnight Ridazz have worked to build rapport with the LAPD, Critical Mass has practically taunted cops.
On the night of the BP ride, some bicyclists were heard yelling, “Fuck the police.”
“There were a number of cyclists running red lights, riding bikes on the opposite side of traffic, who didn't have lights on,” Villegas says. “Some were drinking alcohol as they were riding, others were reported to be smoking marijuana during the ride.”
Police could have blocked intersections, allowed the cyclists to ignore red lights and given them the run of the boulevard — if only there had been advance notice and cooperation from Critical Mass.
“We want to facilitate them, like we do any demonstration,” Villegas says. He notes that some Critical Mass members have stepped forward to work with police after the controversial ride. “What this incident is going to do is bolster and enhance our relationship with bicyclists.”