The City Council just passed a package of bills — collectively known as the Criminal Justice Reform Act — encouraging police officers to issue civil instead of criminal summonses for “quality-of-life” offenses like possessing an open container of alcohol or littering. Sidewalk biking wasn’t one of the offenses included in the bills, but a reform NYPD made to its enforcement of sidewalk cycling appears to have served as a proof of concept for the rest of the package.
Spearheaded by Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, the legislation aims to reduce NYPD’s issuance of criminal summonses that have disproportionately penalized communities of color for minor offenses. By issuing civil instead of criminal summons for transgressions like public urination, possession of an open container of alcohol, littering, excessive noise, and violating park rules with civil penalties instead of criminal summonses, the intent is to reduce the severe impact of enforcement.
While council members had initially hoped to eliminate criminal penalties for these offenses altogether, the version of Intro 1057-A passed today requires NYPD to develop guidelines dictating when to apply civil or criminal summonses for each offense. The bill states that the City Council has “concluded that criminal enforcement of these offenses should be used only in limited circumstances.”
A major impetus for the reforms is the disproportionate impact that enforcement of those five offenses has carried in communities of color. Sidewalk biking has historically been enforced in much the same way. A 2014 study showed that from 2008 to 2011, 12 of the 15 NYC neighborhoods where police issued the most sidewalk biking summonses were majority black or Latino.
“There’s been inequitable enforcement of cycling on the sidewalk,” said attorney and bike law expert Steve Vaccaro. “They haven’t been going after senior citizens on the Upper West Side the same as they go after young black men in East New York.”
Subdivision “b” of Section 19-176 of the city’s administrative code levies a maximum civil penalty of $100 for biking on the sidewalk. But subdivision “c” spells out a misdemeanor variation when someone bikes on the sidewalk in a “manner that endangers any other person or property” — and that carries a maximum penalty of 20 days in jail.