Are Cops Using Bike-Registration Law to Detain Blacks They Deem Suspicious?

On a sunny morning in 2011, Ellsworth Knowles Jr. was pedaling his bike through Fort Lauderdale, when plainclothes cops in an unmarked car rolled up. They wanted to know if he had proper registration for his bike.

By then, Knowles, now 45, knew the routine. He says he and others in his neighborhood have been stopped before. Under a Fort Lauderdale ordinance, city residents are required to register their bikes with the city. But according to Knowles — and now the Broward public defender — cops regularly use a registration check as an excuse to detain people they deem suspicious — especially black people.

"This law was passed and designed for no other purpose than to stop black people," Broward County Public Defender Howard Finkelstein tells New Times. "It's pretty clear that it's racial profiling."

"Essentially what they do, they'll stop you without any probable cause whatsoever," Knowles says.

As Knowles tells it, the police tried to search him. He says he angrily told them to back off — throwing in a "blue-eyed, dog-smelling cracker" or two for effect — and argued that the ordinance didn't pertain to him because he didn't live in the city. In response, the cops smashed his chrome-trimmed black beach rider against the ground, warping the wheels, he claims. Court records show he was cited for license not carried, a bicycle brakes violation, and a bicycle regulation violation.

"They just can't use the fact that you may not have your bike registered as a precursor to stop you," he says. "We feel we're in imminent danger whenever we walk out the door because of the negative history of dealing with the police."

Last Friday, Finkelstein delivered a letter to the State's Attorney Office alleging, "[O]fficers are profiling minorities and stopping them for failure to have a bicycle permit." Finkelstein says black males made up 96 percent of the individuals slapped with ordinance violations between January and May of this year. Since December 2010, black males have made up 85 percent — 395 out of 437 — tickets issued by the department. "Only 2% of tickets issued for bike permits are issued in neighborhoods east of U.S. 1, which are predominately white," the letter reads.

Finkelstein told New Times that "biking while black" is just an extension of the patterns his office has seen with police targeting minorities in cars and walking the street.

Police Chief Franklin Adderley questioned Finkelstein's motivations and denied allegations of racial profiling. "Let's tee it up in a community forum, me and Finkelstein," he said. "Let's let the black community decide who they want to follow on this."

According to Adderley's stats, the city has issued 3,180 citations since 2010, with 1,964 of the violators black and 1,135 white. Adderley seemed to take issue with the idea that his department is preying on the black community or that a white guy riding down the street selling crack from his bike in Rio Vista wouldn't be stopped by police.

"Where I rest my head at night is in the black community, and I don't see [Finkelstein] at our community meetings when we're talking about our concerns," said Adderley, who is African-American.

He said members of the community, concerned about drugs and crime, haven't complained to him about police officers using the bike ordinance inappropriately.

"Some of [Finkelstein's] comments are probably more appropriate for his closing arguments," Adderley said. "My job as the police chief in Fort Lauderdale is I have to manage crime every day. I have to manage the community's concerns."

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