On a sunny morning in 2011, Ellsworth Knowles Jr. was pedaling his bike through Fort Lauderdale, steering for the Midway Food Market at NW 11th and NW 1st Street. Before the outspoken African-American commercial painter hit his destination, plainclothes cops in an unmarked car rolled up, he says. They wanted to know if he had proper registration for his bike.
By then, Knowles, then 43, knew the routine. He says that he and others in his neighborhood had been stopped before. Under a Fort Lauderdale ordinance, city residents are required to register their bikes with the city. The police can impound bikes that are in violation. 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."
UPDATED: Chief Franklin Adderley responds below.
"Essentially what they do, they'll stop you without any probably cause whatsoever," Knowles says.
As Knowles tells it, the police tried to search his person. 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. Knowles says he refused to accept the citations. Knowles was charged with battery in 1989, and grand theft in 1995.
The banged-up bike aside, Knowles says the real problem is the whole reasoning fueling the stops. "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."
On 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." According to a review performed by investigators in his office, 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,"biking while black" is just an extension of the patterns his office has seen with police targeting minorities in cars and walking the street.
When New Times spoke with Fort Lauderdale Police Chief Franklin Adderley, he questioned Finkelstein's motivations and denied allegations of racial profiling.
"Let's tee it up in a community forum, me and Finkelstein," he told New Times. "Let's let the black community decide who they want to follow on this."
According to Adderley's own stats, the city has issued 3,180 citations since 2010, with 1,964 of the violators black and 1,135 white. But more than a numbers game, Adderley seemed to take issue with the idea that his department is preying on the black community while the Public Defender is looking out for their best interests, 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," he said.
Adderley said that members of the community, concerned about drugs and crime, haven't complained about police officers using the bike ordinance inappropriately.
Also, he said that Finkelstein job is to represent the very offenders causing problems in the black community. "Some of his comments are probably more appropriate for his closing arguments," he 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."