It's summer in New York City. A new bike share program -- the largest in the country -- has officially begun, introducing 6,000 new bicycles to our streets. If you're a longtime bike lover like me, you too will appreciate the ascendancy of your favorite two-wheeled vehicle as a new age of public transportation dawns upon our city. And if you do ride a bicycle in New York, hopefully you won't get thrown in jail like I did just a few months ago.
It was 8:30 on Tuesday night in March. Laura, my almost-eight-months pregnant wife asked me to pop out to the local grocery store to grab her a snack. So I jumped on my beat-down old bicycle and ambled into the Carroll Gardens night. I'd only made it a few blocks when, at the intersection of Hoyt and President Streets, a pair of police in a van rolled into my path and pulled me over.
Like the majority of streets in Brooklyn, Hoyt is narrow and has no bike lane. Whenever I'm riding on a street like Hoyt I inevitably end up on the sidewalk to avoid being run over by a car. Once I do move onto the sidewalk I'm always extra careful to look out for pedestrians. If one appears, I slow way, way down. Not only do I want to avoid colliding with any pedestrians, I don't even want to scare one of them. That's the kind of guy I am.
The cops, of course, weren't buying this. They told me to hand over my driver's license. "I am about to get a motherfucking ticket for riding my motherfucking bike on the motherfucking sidewalk," I thought to myself. "I went out to buy my pregnant wife some vegan chocolate pudding at the health food store and this is my motherfucking reward."
Patience. In 15 minutes I would be past all this, curled up on the couch with my wife, watching a movie and eating fancy desserts.
But first, a little friendly banter. Turns out these cops were born and raised in Brooklyn. And "in the Brooklyn where I grew up," one policeman said with a nostalgic smirk, "No one even thought about getting a ticket for riding their bike on the sidewalk."
"Those were good old days" I sighed, as the police radio made a squawk. And suddenly... the cops jumped out of the van and surrounded me.
"What's going on?" I asked.
"You've got a warrant out for your arrest."
"Um, I think your computer made a mistake" I answered with a half smile.
"Put your hands behind your back."
The cops grabbed me and pushed me up against their van. Handcuffs cranked down on my wrists. "Have you got any weapons? Drugs?" the cops demanded as they rifled through my pockets and opened my wallet.
"No I don't! This is fucking insane," I shouted. "What the hell are you doing? What's the charge???" The van's computer couldn't tell them. "Settle down and step into the vehicle", they told me. "You committed a crime at some point and failed to appear in court. We'll let you know your charge when we get to the 76th precinct."
Now I'm a 42 year-old guy. And in the course of my life -- especially the part where I was a young rock and roll musician in the 90s and early 2000s -- I certainly did some silly things. Some of them were probably illegal. But as far as I knew I had gotten away with them all -- at least as far as the law was concerned. So what could possibly have made the police think I should be sitting in their van in handcuffs with my arms wrenched behind my back? A failure to appear in court? I had never been arrested in my life .
Honestly, in the past 15 years, my only run-ins with the NYPD concerned minor bicycle infractions. My first ticket happened some time in the late 90s on a desolate stretch of sidewalk off Flatbush Avenue, near the Manhattan Bridge. The cop told me Giuliani was pushing a new quota and that he was embarrassed to have even stopped me. If I contested the charge in court, the cop said, he'd purposely fail to show up and the whole thing would be thrown out. My next offense came a year later: riding the wrong way down a side street in Manhattan. That one cost something like 40 bucks, paid by mail. Finally, in 2006, a year or two after moving from the East Village to Carroll Gardens, I was stopped for riding on the sidewalk off Smith Street. The policeman handed me some sort of pink slip with no details on how much I needed to pay. I assumed my actual ticket would show up in the mail. As far as I can remember, it never did.
We arrived at the 76th. I was told it would "take a while" to research my charge and, in the meantime, I'd have to wait... in a cell. My one phone call went straight to voicemail. "I know this sounds hard to believe," I told Laura, "But I am in jail for riding my bicycle on the sidewalk. I am gonna try to work this out and come home soon." I was locked into a six by six foot holding cell with a weary looking homeless guy. Sitting there, I imagined how scared and confused Laura would feel when she finally checked her phone after realizing I'd never come home.
After about a half hour, the arresting officer appeared to inform me of my charge. That ticket I'd gotten in 2006 on Smith Street? It wasn't actually a "ticket." It was a summons to appear in court. I'd missed my date and, for the past seven years, there'd been a warrant out for my arrest. I'd have to spend the night in jail and take it up with the judge tomorrow.
"Spend the night in jail?" I asked. "You're actually telling me I'm supposed to spend the night in jail for riding my bicycle on the sidewalk?"
"You're not spending the night in jail for riding your bike on the sidewalk," the arresting officer told me. "You're spending the night in jail for failing to appear in court."
He explained that maybe up until around 10 years ago, New York City cops in situations like this had the authority to make a judgment call. They could let a guy walk if his outstanding warrant had been issued for a minor offense. But apparently too many cops made the decision to let too many people go home. And the city clamped down. Now, once you're "in the system," he told me, the only one who can let you out is a judge.
But I had been living in plain sight for the past seven years. And not once had I received any indication whatsoever that I was a fugitive from justice. No phone calls, no letters, no email, nothing. Since my summons in 2006 I'd updated my address with the DMV, twice. I'd gotten a motorcycle license. I was even given a speeding ticket in a rental car on my way to a wedding upstate. None of these events triggered any red flags. If I had known I was supposed to have appeared in court, I would have appeared. If I had gotten a ticket, I would've paid it. I'd received plenty of other correspondence from the city government -- voter registration, official letters asking me to pay taxes and serve jury duty. But somehow, no one bothered to send a reminder that there was a warrant out for my arrest.
Couldn't I just pay a fine right now and go home to my pregnant wife? Was my freedom some sort of danger to the public at large? Was I a flight risk? Is there really no difference between me and the crack addict you just walked into my cell? Yes that crack addict. The guy who is clearly high and who told me he ran and hid under a truck when you first tried arresting him for buying crack?
The answer was, you're still spending the night in jail. They took my fingerprints and mug shot.
At around 1:30 a.m. I was put back in cuffs, escorted to the van by two police, and taken down to the 72nd precinct in Sunset Park. The 72nd precinct is a total shithole. It's got a block of maybe 12 cells. They're filthy, dark, and covered in graffiti. I got thrown in with Pedro, the crack addict I'd met back at the 76th. Believe it or not, after catching a glimpse of the other inmates, it actually felt good to see a familiar face.
My new cell was about 6x8 feet. Pedro had already sprawled out along the single wooden bench. I had just enough room to sit down next to his feet, which smelled like they had been marinating inside the bowels of a nauseous dragon. Our bench faced an open stainless steel toilet that looked like it hadn't been cleaned since the Dinkins administration. If a prisoner were forced to use this toilet, say to do a "number 2," his cellmate would be right there with him to share the experience, face to face. It's a small miracle Pedro and I were able to spare each other this indignity.
Pedro told me that back in the day he'd gone to a woman's house, tied her up and robbed her at gunpoint of all her possessions. This got him 12 years upstate for armed robbery. In prison he was the "weapons man" -- the guy who would make and distribute "shivs" (things to stab people with) and "bangers." (things to hit people with). His favorite type of shiv was made with a toothbrush -- "just file down the handle 'til it's really sharp, wrap tape around the brush and use that end to grab onto when you stab motherfuckers."
A couple of cells down was a guy with what must have been the worst case of sleep apnea in documented medical history. He sounded like a dying boar with a megaphone and was driving Pedro out of his mind. So Pedro started slamming his fists onto the metal wall of our cell, screaming, "Shut the fuck up!" again and again at the top of his lungs. This technique would stop the guy from snoring for maybe five seconds each time. "Damn son," said Pedro. "Fuckin' cops supposed to be checkin' us every ten minutes and there ain't been one come by for two fuckin' hours. I been yelling my ass off this whole time. Some mad fucked up fight could pop off in here right now and they wouldn't know shit."
I silently prayed that Pedro was just making a benign observation. But he was right. If a person locked up in one of these cells -- like me, for instance -- were to be attacked and scream for help, it seemed like that person would simply be ignored. Luckily, Pedro and I were cool. He never even asked me what I was in for -- more proof that people high on cocaine really only want to talk about themselves -- in this case, a good thing. If you're gonna fuck with someone in jail, it's probably a safer bet to choose the guy who's in for riding his bicycle in the sidewalk.
Pedro passed out around 4:30 am. With nothing to read besides the graffiti on the walls and nothing to listen to besides the guy with sleep apnea and the occasional sound of someone violating their in-cell toilet, I attempted to close my eyes and retreat into some sort of vaguely meditative state. Meditating in jail, by the way, sucks. I could only think of how the utter randomness of my situation made the whole thing worse. Had I been locked up for doing something bad, I could've come to terms with the fact that I deserved it. Had I done something good I would've been able to steel myself with a righteous sense of purpose. I'm actually a political activist as part of my day job. I've participated in countless protests. And I've got many friends who've bravely done time for non-violent direct action. Had I been able to join their ranks for an admirable cause I might have been proud to spend some time behind bars. But I hadn't done anything bad or good. I'd just gotten randomly locked up in jail.
More abstract hours passed. At some point a guy reached through the bars to hand me a cup of "orange drink" and an Egg McMuffin (yes, a real Egg McMuffin from McDonald's. Nice marketing, guys). Then, some time later in the void of consciousness, came the ghostly clanking of metal. A cop walked through the hallway dragging a medieval-looking 20-foot chain along the floor. He and his partners started opening the cells and shackling prisoners to the chain. I was locked in between the guy with sleep apnea (who turned out to be a seven foot tall felon -- good thing I never yelled at him to stop snoring) and a guy who'd been arrested for "criminal mischief" (smashing up other people's stuff). All in all, our chain gang totaled around 15 men.
The cop in charge started shouting at us. "Do you know how cold it is outside? It's fucking 20 degrees. If any one of you fucks up, I'll tighten your fucking cuffs as tight as they'll fucking go. I'll put you in the fucking van and turn up the fucking AC 'til you're all freezing your fucking piece of shit asses off." And then Pedro, my cellmate, fucked up. A heroin addict friend who'd overheated after a fix had given Pedro his jacket. And Pedro was having trouble fitting it over the coat he was already wearing. "What the fuck is this? Some kind of faggot fashion show?" yelled the cop. "I should leave you the fuck in jail you stupid fuck!" He tightened our cuffs. It hurt. And then he led our chain gang into a dark, windowless prisoner transport van, with the AC cranked to freezing. It was really fucking cold and the cops had made it that way to purposely throw in a little torture for our drive to The Red Hook Community Justice Center.
"The Red Hook Community Justice Center is smaller, cleaner, and faster than central booking at 120 Schermerhorn downtown," said our welcoming officer. "You are lucky to be here in Red Hook. At 120 Schermerhorn you would be just one more asshole jammed into a room with 150 other assholes. Many of them would be high steppers -- murderers, rapists, and other felons waiting to take the ride to Riker's. If you are lucky, the judge here at Red Hook will see you in the next few hours and you will go home. But don't fucking be asking me when the judge will see you. You are not at the dentist waiting to get a fucking tooth pulled. You are in fucking jail."
Fucking jail: the guys from my chain gang were locked in a 10 x 20 ft. room in the basement of the courthouse. A bulletproof Plexiglas wall faced the hallway. Our new lockup room featured the de rigueur open toilet, this time partitioned by a small metal panel. Across from the toilet a drinking fountain leaked water onto the floor. Guys would take a whiz and then tromp through the puddle by the leaking fountain. So the entire floor looked like a dirty brown watercolor painting. Since we only had about eight chairs for 15 prisoners, a bunch of my fellow prisoners decided to stretch out on the soggy linoleum for a nap.
The Red Hook courthouse shuts down for lunch from 1 to 2:30 pm. Our meal arrived right around the same time -- a peanut butter and jelly or American cheese sandwich and milk that had gone past its expiration date. This grand repast provided no distraction from the fact that seven hours had gone by since our arrival and not one person in our room had yet been sent to see the judge. The courthouse closes at 5 p.m. If you haven't been arraigned by then, it's another night in jail.
A guy who'd been let out of our cell to consult his private lawyer came back and announced he'd heard the police saying we'd all be spending the night at 120 Schermerhorn -- aka the place that was supposedly nastier and scarier than anything in the past 18 hours.
Then someone took a dump in the toilet. And it wouldn't flush.
A 300-pound dude in a hoodie who'd hadn't said a word all day stood up and stared at the toilet. He started talking to himself. "Fuck this shit. I got stopped for a motherfucking traffic violation. And 'cause I'm awaiting trial for attempted murder that bullshit violated my parole. This bitch ass motherfucker clogged his shit in the motherfuckin' toilet. And now it's almost five fucking o'clock. And we're going to 120. I cannot fucking believe this." The attempted murder traffic violator covered his face with his hands and crumpled into his seat like a broken man.
And then I heard them call my name. A cop unlocked the door, told me to put my hands behind my back and follow him. He led me up a flight of stairs, into the courtroom, and right to the judge. A man in a suit leaned over to me and said, "I'm your lawyer." He asked the judge for something called NCC, meaning, "No crime committed." The prosecutor said she would accept the request. My lawyer leaned over and said, "I highly recommend you take the NCC. It'll be as if nothing ever happened." I said yes. The judge said ok. And it was over. My arraignment lasted for less than two minutes. All my charges were thrown in the garbage. No crime committed. I was free to go.
I stumbled into Laura's arms for a delirious hug. Turns out as soon as she got my message she'd shown up at the police station in the middle of the night and yelled at the cops who arrested me. Laura had also been utilizing her pregnant belly all day at the courthouse to help aggravate for my release. By the time I showed up on the stand I'm pretty sure every single person on staff knew both of our names. But perhaps most importantly, Laura hired me a private lawyer. Apparently, when you've got one of those, you get bumped up a little in line. His fee was 750 bucks (half off -- friend of a friend). And at that moment, $750 seemed like a really great deal.
Ironically, with my case thrown out, the city of New York only lost money from my arrest. Apparently this is not unusual. I later learned that out of 528,618 summonses issued in New York in 2011, 212,170 were unconditionally dismissed. And speaking of old fashioned bureaucracy, did I mention that part of the reason I wasn't able to see the judge until 4:30 was because my arrest record hadn't yet been physically brought over from the police station to the courthouse? Anyone at the NYPD ever heard of a thing called email? Maybe next decade. But New York's civic bureaucracy was no longer my problem. All I knew was that, 20 hours after being arrested and locked up in jail, I was finally a free man.
Driving home with Laura and my friend Dave, I wondered what was in store for the guys I'd done time with. There had been one other person taken in for riding his bike on the sidewalk -- a 20 year-old kid -- and I worried about him. Like 90 percent of the guys in our cell, this kid was from the projects. But unlike everyone else (except for me), he had never spent time in jail. The kid was working his way through college. And according to him, he'd actually been considering joining the NYPD after graduation.
Two summers ago, this kid went on a date. Walking home at the end of the night, he and his girl passed a local park. The lights were still on and the gates were still open. So they wandered in and sat on a bench. They weren't drinking. They weren't doing drugs. Just two kids on a summer night, sitting on a park bench, talking. A policeman showed up and gave them a summons. Turns out the park was closed. A week later, school starts and the kid forgets all about it. Fast forward two years: He's riding home from work on a Tuesday night. He goes up on the sidewalk to avoid a car, gets stopped by the cops, arrested, and thrown in jail.
I was lucky enough to have a fierce wife with $750 in my corner. This poor kid did not have my resources. As a result, he was about to spend a second night in jail and maybe miss another day of college classes paid for with his own hard earned money. No wonder the kid said this experience killed his ambition to someday join the NYPD. You'd like to believe police work is about fighting real crime and helping good people feel safe. But how can a cop earn the trust and respect of his community when he's asked to throw someone in jail for riding a bike on the sidewalk or for sitting in a park after dusk?
Look... my grandfather was a New York City cop. My uncle was a New York City cop. I know how tough a cop's job can be. But ever since my night in jail, when I see a police officer, I honestly feel a mixture of anxiety, fear and anger. A cop is no longer a guy who's there for my protection. He's someone who might arrest me out of nowhere, even if I didn't do anything wrong. As a white guy born in the suburbs, I can't even pretend to know what it's like to be a black kid from the projects or any person of color living daily under draconian policies like stop-and-frisk. But being forcibly searched, cuffed, and thrown in jail is as demeaning, violating, and scary as you might imagine -- especially when it happens for no logical reason whatsoever. And when it happens to you, even once, it changes how you feel about the cops and how they do their job.
"Have you ever heard of quotas?" asked the cop who arrested me. In the same way he was charged with issuing a certain number of "quality of life" summonses -- to people riding their bikes on the sidewalk or drinking a beer on their stoop or sitting in a park after dusk -- other cops are required to hit a particular quota for stop-and-frisk. It's troubling that these cops, decent-though-they-may-be as individuals, are less and less able to make decisions on their own on how many people they're supposed to stop and who they're required to arrest. Instead their actions are dictated by a "system" that is so lacking in nuanced human intelligence and compassion that you have to assume something crooked is going on. Giving a summons for riding a bicycle on the sidewalk simply can't actually be about riding a bicycle on the sidewalk, right? If I had been that kid from the projects, I would've had to assume the cops arrested me because I was black. And it would've been a pretty fair assumption considering the vast majority of "quality-of-life" summonses are handed out to people of color. In my group of 15, everyone was either black or latino except me and one other dude.
But let's put aside classism and racism for a minute to consider something almost as depressing. Perhaps, as much as anything else, "the system" is just really dumb. I checked out our bicycle laws. It seems kids up to 12 years of age are allowed to ride on the sidewalk as long as their bike's wheels are 26 inches or less. But adults on similar-sized bikes are forbidden. My wheels are 27 inches. If only I were able to connect with the sober judgment of my 12 year-old self. Maybe then I'd have the good sense to handle that extra inch of wheel circumference responsibly. Thank goodness our children are here to keep sidewalk bicycling safe.
My neighborhood is lousy with kids (an epidemic to which my wife and I just contributed). I watch Razor-riding 8 year-olds eat it on the sidewalk weekly. Razor scooters? Totally legal. You know what else is legal on the sidewalk? Skateboards. I actually own a skateboard. And trust me -- you don't want me riding that thing in public. I will definitely crash into you. But when I do, I will only receive a small fine for skateboarding "recklessly." If you ride your bicycle slowly and carefully on that same sidewalk, it's a mandatory court appearance. That means taking the day off from work or school or family to stand in front of a judge. There's no option to simply pay a fine by mail. And if your case is dismissed, the city won't have made a dime -- just a colossal waste of time and money for all parties involved.
The city of New York hasn't published any stats on sidewalk skateboard or Razor scooter mishaps. But in October 2011, the Department of Transportation started reporting bicycle crash data. In the last two months of 2011, there were 26 injury-causing collisions between bikes and pedestrians in New York City. Assuming that rate of collision stayed relatively consistent, you'd get around 156 bicycle/pedestrian crashes annually. Sadly, that's just a few more people than were hit by MTA trains last year (141). What happens when bicycles stay on the road like they're supposed to? In 2012, 3,844 cyclists were hurt in collisions with cars. Nineteen of those cyclists died. Where did most of those injuries and deaths occur? Brooklyn. I think I'll stick to the sidewalk.
The policeman who arrested me told me his authority to stop sidewalk bicyclists was a "tool." There had been a "rash of bike-riding purse-snatchers" in the neighborhood. Had I been one of those guys, the cop said, he would've been able to put a thief behind bars. Thing is, I wasn't one of those guys. But I went to jail anyway. And during my stay, I was treated like a real criminal -- nothing more, nothing less. That's our system at work.
Maybe the most idealistic advice came from our chain gang cop at the 72nd precinct: "If you don't wanna spend the night in jail, don't get fucking arrested." Unfortunately, that may not be as easy as you'd think. According to court records, there are currently one million people in New York City with outstanding bench warrants they may or may not know about. That's literally one in every eight people in New York with a warrant out for their arrest. Which leads me to believe the system isn't so "dumb" after all. I mean, why not reserve the right to arrest almost anyone at any time? That way, cops might eventually have a reason to stop, frisk, or lock up all the "criminals" in New York. When you're riding your bike this summer, just hope the next one won't be you.
 Well there was that one time when I was a college freshman in Gainesville, Florida and I stole a wooden sign from a real estate office while drunk on Jack Daniel's. But that was a really long time ago.