Chief Beck Brings His Olive Branch to “Town Hall” with Cyclists

2_25_10_beck.jpgBeck gets sworn in last December. Photo: View from a Loft/Flickr

(Editor's note: Ari Bloomekatz also has full coverage of the meeting at LA Now.)

Yesterday evening, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck and Assistant Chief Earl Paysinger attended a meeting of the Los Angeles City Council Transportation Committee to respond to questions and concerns of the cycling community.  The tone of the meeting was markedly different than past Council meetings featuring enforcement issues involving cyclists.  Compare the statement of Paysinger that, ""Our (the LAPD's) commitment to the cycling community as we move forward is to do better" to his appearance at the Committee in November of 2008 when he seemed unaware and unconcerned about the LAPD abusing the "bicycle licensing" law

When Beck had to leave the meeting, he was met with applause from the cycling community which might be a first in the relationship between the LAPD and cyclists.  At one point, Ramon Martinez asked that Beck make a statement that "the LAPD takes a stand to support cyclists in this city."  Beck responded, "I think I already did...Of course I do.  Of course, I do.  It's not only a valid, but it is an admirable form of transportation and I support it."  Rosendahl referred to the meeting as, "The beginning of a new day with the LAPD.”  It truly seemed like one, how often does one hear a bike advocate such as Stephen Box get thanked for his leadership by an authority figure with the LAPD, as Beck did after Box promoted the Bicycling Backbone Network and Cyclists Bill of Rights.

However, just because Beck and Paysinger showed up with their olive branches in hand doesn't mean that everything has been worked out.  Cyclists from a variety of different backgrounds took to the podium with various LAPD horror stories and vowed to make certain that Beck's LAPD matched his rhetoric.  The Chief conceded that it's not like change would happen in the department overnight and asked cyclists for patience "as we change the culture" both in the LAPD and on our streets.  Beck, and Rosendahl, both laid out a timeline of about six months before the LAPD will show signs that the "culture change" has been completed.

So how is "change" going to come to the LAPD?  Beck announced that a memorandum from his desk with new operating orders and training orders would be issued soon.  When pressed by the LACBC's Aurisha Smolarski, Beck promised that the department's Bicycle Task Force, which includes Smolarski, Box, Carlos Morales and other names familiar to Streetsblog readers would get a chance to review the document first.  The goal of the document is to clarify and improve the rights of cyclists, the duties of cyclists and the security of cyclists and their bikes.

Beck also brought good news for the friends, family and supporters of Ed Magos.  Both Beck and Rosendahl spoke with the City Attorney's office about revisiting the Magos case to see if they erred in deciding not to prosecute the driver of the Porsche Cayenne who ran him down then ran away.  "No promises," Beck told the audience, "but they're giving it a second look."  While it's good news that the C.A. is willing to revisit their decision, the best we can hope for is a misdemeanor charge from them.  Felony cases are handled by the District Attorney.

The emotional high from the meeting came when Colin Bogart read a letter from Magos to the committee.  The full text of the letter can be found at the end of this story, but you could sense Magos' frustration when he wrote, "To add insult to injury, I recently read in the Los Angeles Times that the City Attorney is going to prosecute actor Sean Penn for kicking a photographer.  Somehow there is time and resources to deal with a kicking case but when I was smashed by a car and left for dead the incident is not worth pursuing."

Many of those testifying told their own hit and run stories, and urged the LAPD to do more.  Stories of cyclists abandoned by the police when they were hit or had their experiences marginalized by the officers who arrived on the scene were common.  Through it all, both Beck and Paysinger didn't get angry, or defensive, as we've seen from LAPD representatives at past meetings; they took it in, and promised to do better.

However, that still wasn't enough for many of the cyclists in attendance, who've heard pretty words before but are taking a "thanks, but we'll believe it when we see it," approach.  As the "open microphone" style of testifying continued after Beck's departure, he stayed for over an hour and could have made the entire meeting had it started on time; Roadblock noted that "strike one" had already happened on Beck's watch.  He was referring to the Magos case again, that the women who hit the civil servant was released with her license and Cayenne in her possession because she turned herself in hours after the crash.

Rosendahl came to Beck's defense, but true to form, Paysinger accepted the criticism and just promised to do better.  Rosendahl also directed the City Attorney and LAPD to look at how the city can better enforce or even change the state law that actually encourages drivers to run from crashes because the penalty is disproportionately small comapred to the penalty for driving under the influence of even driving while texting.

Of course, not everything was cause for celebration.  Another cyclist, one of those present when an H3 smashed into Andres Tena and drove off dragging several bikes with him; blasted the LAPD for their handling of that case.  Even though this was the fourth time that the Committee had called for a copy of the crash report to be made public, neither Beck nor Paysinger brought a copy.  My own public information requests have also been ignored.  I guess that even though there's going to be a culture change, the LAPD isn't willing to string out Officer Cho to be sacrificed at a public hearing.

The other thing to be concerned about was the silence from Beck and Paysinger when asked directly about the policing of group rides.  The cyclist was talking about the harassment that she witnessed from the LAPD to cyclists on a recent Critical Mass.  Rosendahl urged the cyclists to get names and badge numbers of any officer not acting appropriately towards cyclists and to pass it on to his office.  Responding to a different questioner, Beck did argue that officers have options beyond flashing their lights to get cars, or cyclists, to pull over.  However, the procedures could be re-examined as part of the policy review the LAPD will be undergoing.

All in all, yesterday has to be considered a "high watermark" day for the ongoing relationship between the LAPD and the cycling community.  However, as was pointed out many times, the proof of a change will be on the streets not the boardroom.  We'll have to wait and see if yesterday was the "Dawn of a new day" as Rosendahl stated or an aberration in what has long been a rocky relationship.

And for posterity's sake, here is the full statement from Ed Magos, delivered by Colin Bogart:

I was doing something I loved, something that was good for me, good for my community, and good for the environment.  All that was taken away on January 6th when my world was turned upside down by a woman who slammed her car into me while I was cycling to work.  She left me exposed and injured laying in the street while she fled the scene.

After much discussion with the LAPD the incident was correctly assessed as a felony hit-and-run with injury.  Much to my dismay I have discovered that neither the District Attorney nor the City Attorney intend to prosecute this case and serve justice.  To add insult to injury, I recently read in the Los Angeles Times that the City Attorney is going to prosecute actor Sean Penn for kicking a photographer.  Somehow there is time and resources to deal with a kicking case but when I was smashed by a car and left for dead the incident is not worth pursuing.

The system seems to have broken down and failed at multiple levels.  The driver who hit me, committed a crime by fleeing the scene, and was driving without insurance is out on the road with nary a consequence.  My wife, children, and I, are the ones suffering the consequences and are left to pick up the pieces of this mess.

Hit and runs must be prosecuted as the crimes that they are and a strong message must be sent that they will not be tolerated in this city!