Wednesday, 20 June 2007

Cycling responsibly

Stephan Orsak and bicycle
Note. There will be a followup to this article after I sort out a few details. The account given here seems incomplete in important ways. Stay tuned.

Stephan Orsak uses his bicycle as a means of transport. It's one small way in which people can modify their lifestyle so as to reduce their impact on the environment. He is about to go to court facing five counts of various misdemeanors and one of gross misdemeanor, relating to an interaction with police at Minneapolis St Paul airport.

I've revised my original blog post considerably. I hope Stephan manages ok in court. I would also like to see bicycles given more recognition as a valid choice for ground transport. But I think in this particular incident Stephan made a bad situation worse. Ah well. I have blogged it anyway, so I'll leave it up with a pointer to Stephan's account at greencycles.

Now, after a bit of time to sit and think, I'll try and add something substantive.

Most people who have ridden a bicycle as a regular means of ground transport will have met up with occasional instances of "road rage" directed against them for no other reason than being on a bicycle, even when using it legally and responsibly. But when it comes from the cops, things can go bad.

In this case, Stephan was riding legally on roads that are heavily used and not bicycle friendly. He's got a video on his website showing the roads in question. I've ridden in such conditions as well, but it's not a place for a beginner, nor is it a place where you would want to meet up with car drivers that are intolerant of bicycles. There was, however, no legal impediment I can see to a bicycle being used. Using a bicycle is a reasonable choice and not one to which other vehicles can object.

Nevertheless, Stephan was stopped by police, who told him to walk his bike to a different location, and proceed from there. He was directed to use an adjacent one-way minor road, and to walk the bike against the traffic flow to another road where he could continue to ride. Police allege in their complaint that bicycles were not permitted; Stephan appears to have a good case that they were mistaken.

This is where matters became really ugly. Stephan provides his own account, as well as the police statements and the formal complaint brought against him. There are some differences, but it is clear even by Stephan's own account that he tried to argue with police, and that by his own initiative he decided that the conversation with police was over and it was time to leave. He left along the one-way road, but decided on his own initiative to ride rather than walk the bike. He was physically brought down off the bike, tasered, arrested, taken to hospital, and then to the police station to be charged and detained. There's a fair bit more detail at Stephan's website for those interested, both by his own account and as statements made by the arresting officers.

There are many comments at the website, and they are highly polarized. Many comments strongly attack the police, even to the point of wanting to see them with years in prison for assault. Many are extraordinarily critical of Stephan, with crude gutter language.

Don't take this the wrong way Stephan. I sympathize, and I hope you win in court; either acquitted or else at worst given a light token punishment. I've been a daily bicycle commuter myself, in central city traffic; it looks to me that this started out as an unfair response to responsible use of a bicycle in heavy traffic.

But I think you made some unfortunate choices, and share the responsibility for what followed. So here is my "Duae Quartunciae" on the issues raised by your clash with the law.

  • Unfortunately, some folks have deep seated prejudice against bicycles, and take any use of a bicycle on a major road as an affront. Sometimes even police may share that bias.
  • Police legitimately have powers and authority to step in when in their judgment they see a problem, and also responsibilities and constraints on the exercise of their special powers. The time to argue legality is not when you are first meeting up with the police; but later when you can take it up with some higher authority. To actually argue the toss at the time is really stupid, no matter how much you believe you are in the right.
  • To decide on your own initiative that a conversion with police is concluded, and then turn your back and leave, and in a manner that you decide is best rather than in the manner that police have said is best, is incredibly foolhardy. If police say one thing and you decide on something else and just leave, you are asking for trouble; and you have very little recourse. Your best hope, I would guess, is for a measure of leniency based on your own good record and upon the legality of use of the bicycle when stopped. I hope you get it.
  • If you are riding away from police who are on foot, you've got very little hope of being stopped gently.
  • The use of a taser was way out of line. By all account you had been brought down off the bike before the taser was applied. It looks like an over reaction by a pissed off policeman; and I hope they get disciplined for it.
  • If you put up a website, on which you say "I was accosted, assaulted with battery, and tased at Minneapolis St Paul international airport, simply for leaving the airport by bicycle. I had broken NO laws.", and the judge happens to see it, your chance of leniency probably drops precipitously. You were not tasered simply for leaving the airport by bicycle, even by your own account. You were tasered shortly after riding illegally on a one-way street.

I hope you don't take this the wrong way. I am wishing you the best of luck in July.

1 comment:

  1. Visitors should read more details at my next blog entry: Cycling Sensibly; and comments are better left there than here.

    Most of what I have said here remains about right; though I now think that the police were correct to stop Stephan in the first instance, given his location.

    If people disagree, please do so in comments on the other post.