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Tampa, Fla., Police Investigated For Crackdown On Black Bicyclists


Black drivers are 31 percent more likely to be pulled over by police than whites. That's according to the Justice Department. It's a phenomenon known as driving while black. But it's not just limited to driving cars. In Florida, the federal government is investigating the Tampa Police Department for something else - a crackdown on black bicyclists. Michael S. Butler reports from member station WUSF.

MICHAEL S. BUTLER, BYLINE: On a recent weekday, it was raining in East Tampa. In this low-income part of the city, some people are still riding their bikes to get to where they need to go. Fifty-five-year-old Gail Rogers is cycling home from her job at McDonald's. She's wearing a big plastic poncho and trying to dodge the raindrops. Her yellow beach cruiser is her only means of transportation, and she enjoys riding it.

GAIL ROGERS: Yes I do. I do it every day. This is my activity.

BUTLER: It's an activity that has gotten the attention of law enforcement and apparently for no reason. She's been stopped twice by the Tampa police.

ROGERS: He just asked me my name. Then he also asked me was the bicycle registered. And I told him, yeah, and they checked it, and it was registered. So it made me kind of feel uncomfortable with them stopping me and kind of embarrassing, you know?

BUTLER: Officers are giving citations to bicycle riders in high-crime areas for offenses like not following road rules and having no lights, to more obscure laws like riding hands-free. Some residents say it's more like overreaching and racial profiling.

Records show, in the past three years, Tampa police have issued more than 2,500 tickets to bicycle riders, 80 percent going to African-Americans. That's in a city with a black population of around 25 percent. An investigation by the Tampa Bay Times newspaper found the number of tickets issued to Tampa cyclists was more than in Miami, Jacksonville, Orlando and St. Petersburg combined. Some residents have complained of being stopped multiple times in one day.

MATTHEW SCHEIDER: First of all, we want agencies to be thoughtful in their policing.

BUTLER: That's Matthew Scheider with the Justice Department's Office of Community Oriented Policing Services. The Tampa police chief and mayor invited the Justice Department to hold a forum to hear from residents.

SCHEIDER: In addition, we also encourage law enforcement agencies to work cooperatively with the community so they're aware of whatever type of policing it is that they're going to engage in.

BUTLER: For more than two hours, dozens of speakers talked about their experiences. Tampa police have said their policy is about reducing crime. In fact, in this East Tampa neighborhood, one bike rider offered to sell me drugs as I conducted interviews for this story. But Anthony Roberts, who's black, says it's not the criminals he fears.

ANTHONY ROBERTS: It's gotten to the point where my mother - you know, I'm a grown adult, and she tells me and texts me where she sees them, where they're at. Go home another way. It's gotten to the point where now I'm safer when I'm out of my neighborhood.

BUTLER: Tampa police say many of the stops are for safety related issues. Black resident Sylvia Reed told the panel she thinks the officers are going about it all wrong.

SYLVIA REED: I currently work with individuals with disabilities. And we're trying to teach them the rules and the regulations of riding their bicycles, but it's very hard when they get targeted. And they get tickets, and they're not able to pay their tickets.

BUTLER: Tickets many residents say keep them in debt and in more trouble with the police. The Tampa City Council has asked the new police chief, Eric Ward, about creating a citizen's review board. Ward says he was shocked by the high number of bicycle tickets. Now that he's chief, he wants to do things differently.

CHIEF ERIC WARD: I met with all the officers, met with all the supervisors and expressed my philosophy behind policing. We don't just drive through a community. We get out, stop and talk to people. That's part of building that relationship. I'm determined that we will have a partnership with our community. We're going to actually develop that relationship.

BUTLER: Meantime, the Justice Department report on the Tampa Police Department and its crackdown on black bicyclists is expected by the end of the year. For NPR News, I'm Michael S. Butler in Tampa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michael S. Butler