Evidently, cops aren’t credible witnesses.
At least as far as LAPD traffic officers are concerned.
Imagine you’re riding along when a driver right hooks you — not just turning across your path, but illegally making a right turn from the left lane — and in the process, not only violates your right-of-way, but causes a collision.
And for once, not just one, but two cops witness the whole thing.
That’s exactly what happened yesterday morning, when Melanie Freeland was making her regular bike commute from Highland Park to Downtown LA.
She was riding on North Broadway through Chinatown around 8:40 am, in the right peak hour lane — that is, what would normally be the parking lane, but converts to a regular traffic lane to accommodate rush hour traffic.
As she was passing the Far East National Bank at 977 N. Broadway, the Lexus traveling in the lane on her left — what was, in effect, the center of three lanes — suddenly turned into the building’s parking lot. The driver cut across the lane Freeland was riding in, without warning, forcing her off the roadway and causing her bike to collide with the car’s door and front panel.
A classic right hook, with the extra added benefit of an illegal turn from the wrong lane. Without signaling, no less.
If that’s not clear, just imagine you’re in the right lane of a two lane street, and the driver on the left suddenly makes a right turn directly in front of you.
And for once, a cop saw the whole thing.
Two police officers — one in uniform, the other in plain clothes — were on their way to court when the collision occurred right before their eyes. They pulled over to offer assistance, calling for an ambulance and staying with her until a regular traffic officer arrived to investigate.
Both officers — I’m leaving out the names of all the cops involved, though Freeland provided their names and badge numbers* — said the driver failed to signal or yield the right-of-way. But even though they were the ones who witnessed the wreck, it would be up to the traffic cop to actually issue a ticket.
The officers gave their report to the traffic investigator, then left for the courthouse.
And that’s when everything went to hell.
The investigator told Freeland he couldn’t issue a ticket or determine fault in the collision because he did not actually witness it, saying he “could not issue a traffic ticket for something he did not see.”
Never mind that two sworn officers did. As well as a security guard for the building, who supported the first officers’ version of events.
So Freeland smartly asked to speak with the traffic officer’s supervisor. Yet when the Sergeant arrived, she repeated the exact same sentence.
And added that “It is not a crime to hit a pedestrian.”
Note to police: bike riders are not pedestrians. We have all the rights and responsibilities of motor vehicle operators, and are allowed on every public street cars are allowed to use, with the exception of some limited access freeways. Calling us pedestrians implies we belong on the sidewalk and belittles our legal right to the roadway.
While it’s true that police officers are generally prohibited from writing citations for traffic violations they don’t witness, I’ve been assured by officers that they can write a ticket or make an arrest based on clear evidence pointing to responsibility for a collision or other violation.
And if the testimony of two cops who witnessed the whole thing — as well as a third independent witness — isn’t clear evidence, I don’t know what the hell is.
Instead, the officers sent just as clear a message that, as far as they’re concerned, bikes don’t’ belong on the street. And good luck getting justice.
Just like the bad old days of LAPD’s anti-bike, windshield bias I thought we’d left long behind us under Chief Beck’s more enlightened leadership.
As Michael MacDonald put it in an email informing me of the case,
There are a lot of things wrong in this picture, not the least of which is that LAPD has again made it clear that cyclists are essentially fair game. I am particularly frustrated that someone I know that had made a concerted effort to make a mode shift towards cycling and to educate herself to ride safely now feels no degree of protection on the road, and is deterred from ever commuting by bike in Los Angeles again.
Fortunately, Freeland does not appear to have suffered any serious injuries, although she was due to be examined by a physician late yesterday.
She’s following up with the original officers, and contacting the department’s bike liaison for the Central Traffic Division. And she plans to reach out to Councilmembers Gil Cedillo and Jose Huizar to express her disappointment and call for safety improvements on Broadway.
Police officers also tell me you should contact the Watch Commander overseeing the officers involved as quickly as possible after an incident like this.
But make no mistake.
Yesterday the LAPD failed Melanie Freeland.
Tomorrow, it might be you.
*My purpose here is not to embarrass the officers. The LAPD was been provided with all the names and badge numbers; it’s up to them to deal with the individuals involved.
Update: Okay, now I’m pissed. Melanie Freeland emailed this morning that she tried to call the bike liaison officer for the Central Traffic Division after I passed his contact information on to her. Except the desk officer who took the call initially refused to put the call through, significantly misrepresenting her case and saying “I know the same laws he does.”
She was finally able to leave a message, but hasn’t heard back yet.
Under former LAPD bike liaison Sgt. David Krumer, the department made great strides in improving relations with the bicycling community. But the expanded bike liaison program is absolutely meaningless if self-appointed gatekeepers are allowed to screen their calls.
And no one should ever have to face an argument when reaching out to anyone in the department for help.
I’ve praised the LAPD as one of the most progressive and bike-friendly police departments in the county since Chief Beck took over. But this is starting to feel like a huge step back to the bad old days.
Update 2: Freeland reports she spoke with the Watch Commander on duty at the time of the incident. Who turned out to be the same Sergeant who came to the scene and backed up the original traffic officer.
In the course of a long conversation, the officer described a Catch 22 that makes it almost impossible for the department to issue a ticket to anyone. Which goes a long way towards explaining the wild west mentality of LA streets, where drivers feel entitled to do virtually anything without fear of consequences.
I called the Central Traffic Division and asked to speak with the Watch Commander on duty yesterday. As I probably should have guessed it was [the Sergeant she’d spoken to at the scene]. I explained to her my phone conversation with [the desk officer] and she stated she did not know why he would state it was a rear end incident when it wasn’t. We talked at length about why a citation would not be issued for this offense. She stated that in order for a traffic citation to be issued two criteria must be met. An LAPD officer must witness the incident and be trained in traffic laws (taken the special course in traffic). Because the [traffic officer] didn’t witness the incident it did not meet the two criteria. Secondly, the officer who did witness the incident is not trained in traffic laws, so again it does not meet the criteria. Thus it is now my understanding, due to the letter of the law that it is not possible for the LAPD to issue a citation to the driver who hit me.
But aren’t all officers trained in traffic law at the Academy?
And are you seriously trying to tell me that a uniformed LAPD officer lacks sufficient judgement and training to determine that a driver failed to signal and violated the right-of-way of another road user?
Sorry, but this explanation sounds like BS.
And if it isn’t, even worse.