Biking While Black Is a Crime

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"And according to Finkelstein," Adderley chuckles, a rare crack in demeanor, "we're not supposed to stop them on bicycles."

Crime stats show mixed results for the area. Some crimes — such as assault and residential burglary — steadily declined between 2011 and today. But narcotics arrests rose between 2011 to 2012, from 211 to 245 arrests, with 148 logged already for 2013. Prostitution has also climbed from 21 arrests in 2011 to 65 in 2012, with six arrests on the books for 2013.

Poole says that considering all the crime, he's all for police using a registration ordinance as probable cause to stop people (even though, he admits, his own bike wasn't registered). Better yet, he says, the cops should lock down the whole city after hours with a martial-law-style curfew. "The police need to do what they need to do.

"And you know how you can see [the criminals are] up to no good?" Poole adds. He mimes a hand-in-the-cookie-jar face, then nervously looks back over his shoulder. As if on cue, a moment later a stick-figure-thin black woman wobbles by on a bicycle. Before pushing into the next block, she peers back. "Prostitute," Poole suggests.

"And that bike," Adderley says, throwing a finger at the rider, "is not registered. You would see a little sticker."

Adderley sports Sistrunk bona fides. Today, Fort Lauderdale's first black police chief still lives in the small white bungalow where he grew up, steps from the notorious boulevard. As a kid, he watched hookers and johns cycle through a boxy building across the street. Now, like many structures on the block, that building is sealed with boards.

The chief bats off criticism about the city's bike ordinance. "The police department, we have to respond to the concerns of the community. And if people say, 'Hey, we've got this drug problem, this burglary problem, and we've got people that are on bikes committing these crimes,' we need to ignore them?" he says, those last words hiked up an octave in disbelief.

Back in the mid-'90s, Fort Lauderdale saw a spike in crime, with numbers that outpaced urban horror shows like Detroit and Washington, D.C. But when broken down by specific offense, it wasn't murder, rapes, or burglaries topping local stats.

"The biggest crime we had was bicycle theft," remembers Tim Smith, a white, longtime Middle River Terrace fixture who served on Fort Lauderdale's City Commission between 1997 and 2003. "You really could not own a bike if you didn't attach it to your leg."

Smith brainstormed a solution. If Fort Lauderdale had a bike registry with serial numbers, police could track stolen bikes and return them to their rightful owners.

But the stolen-bike craze dovetailed with the flood of crack in the city's northwest area. To limit their own exposure, the older dealers used young kids on bikes as drug couriers, Smith says. After the bike-registration ordinance passed in 1999, police would stop bikes to check for registration and frequently find crack slingers sitting on the seat.

"There's no question that the fact that people had to register their bicycles probably helped in the effort to stop the crack dealing," Smith says.

Adderley defends the use of the bicycle ordinance and denies that any type of racial profiling is involved. When he replays the complaints from downtown (and particularly from white politicians like Finkelstein), frustration comes crashing through the façade of the cool and careful public servant. There's a realpolitik of street policing to consider, he argues. Without the ordinance, crime in the black neighborhoods would go up.

"We have to reduce crime," Adderley says. "And if we have a high number of burglaries and robberies and complaints of drug activity in a certain area and we figure out the majority of offenders are riding bicycles, we shouldn't just ignore it because Howard Finkelstein has a perception.

"Really, who's more racist?" Adderley says, miming Finkelstein's position: " 'The black people don't know what they're doing, so let me come over and tell them how to do it for themselves.' "

The concept of "probable cause" isn't likely clouding anyone's thoughts at the beach, where the faces are predominantly pasty.

It's Sunday, the sky above Fort Lauderdale is a bulging blue, and the afternoon ritual is rolling along as usual. From the Elbo Room, the double-decker dive bar at Las Olas Boul­evard and North Fort Lauderdale Beach Boulevard, cheers from NFL fans rain down onto the sidewalks clogged with pedestrians. Across the street, the sand is packed tight with sunning skin. And when you look around, bikes are everywhere — chained up to light posts, weaving through pedestrians, stacked in the back of pickup trucks. None appears to have a registration sticker.

Sitting on the wall with his back to the sand, a bearded white guy in his late 30s leans over his smart phone, watching a video. He plucks out his earbuds to listen to a question. Is his bike registered? "Nope," he answers. Is he worried about violating the city ordinance? "Never heard of it," he says, his face crunching up in a perplexed look. Ever been stopped by police for a bike registration check? "No," he answers again, eyes slicing to the side, as if waiting for a camera crew to pop out and reveal a gag.

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Kyle Swenson
Contact: Kyle Swenson