At Pro Walk Pro Bike, Activsts and Police Officers Talk About Working Together

On Tuesday, I was honored to be featured on a panel at the Pro Walk Pro Bike Conference entitled, “Crash Reduction through Advocacy, Enforcement, and Support Programs.” In addition to myself, I was joined by Peter Flucke and Rebecca Resman. Since we know most Streetsblog readers don’t get to go to conferences such as Pro Walk Pro Bike, Flucke, Resman and I thought we would do our best to bring our small part of this conference to you.

Our panel was led by Flucke, a former law enforcement officer, who introduced me and Resman. For anyone reading Streetsblog for the first time I’m the editor of the Los Angeles site and have been since March of 2008. Resman is with the Active Transportation Alliance (ATA), formerly the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation.

Flucke explained that while we were all coming from different directions, the thread that tied our presentations together was that we were all interested in improving the relationship between bicycle and pedestrian advocates and the police. I would be going first discussing what advocates can do to improve the relationship from their end. Next, Flucke discussed the training available to police departments, including a program he offers and another one by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Last, Resman introduced the Crash Support Program offered by ATA to victims of crashes.

Then Flucke handed over the microphone.

Streetsblog for PWPB – Police Relations (1)

Comparing New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco Streetsblog, I’m comfortable saying that in Los Angeles we have   the most positive relationship with our local police department. Obviously, a big part of that is that the local police are willing to work with us and give us straight answers to questions. As I noted in the panel, “Some of the things that worked with us and the LAPD won’t work with every department. It’s not as though our relationship with the County Sheriffs is near what it is with the LAPD.”

To advocacy groups that are struggling to connect with the local police, I offered some advice.

First, there’s no such thing as “The Police.” Unfortunately, most police officers, even traffic officers, aren’t trained in bicycle and pedestrian safety to a great degree. In Los Angeles, many rely on informational booklets provided to them by the Southern California Automobile Club, the local chapter of the AAA.

So while many officers might be enforcing the letter, not spirit, of the law and others might be using the rulebook as a weapon against organized bike rides or Critical Mass; there is someone, most likely a group of someones, who “gets it.” The first step is to find those people and cultivate a relationship. For L.A. Streetsblog, that meant providing a forum for the police to talk directly to readers and vice-versa and helping when the police were looking for witnesses to hit and run and other bicycle and pedestrian crashes.

Second, once the relationships are established these new friends become people who can help promote the message inside the department. In Los Angeles, traffic cops in the LAPD are now telling other officers not to park in the bike lane.

An established relationship also provides a platform for criticism that is taken more legitimately. Most police departments are subjected to harsch criticism by advocates and the media. Whether advocates think they deserve it or not, it’s natural for all the criticism to become white noise to officers. However, when criticism is coming from people they know, it tends to change how it is taken.

The last message is to take advantage of big moments. In L.A., we were fortunate to have several “big moments” including a high profile incident where an officer was seen kicking a cyclist on Critical Mass, a townhall meeting in City Council between LAPD Chief Charlie Beck and cyclists set up by Council Member Bill Rosendahl with an assist from fellow Council Member and former Police Chief Bernard Parks. Making these moments last and turn into substantial change at the law enforcement organizations.

Next up, Flucke, now with WE Bike, talked about the importance of training officers in bicycle and pedestrian safety. He also discussed how to talk with the police themselves about why they should do training.

“When I train officers, I ask them how many have had 100 hours of bicycle and pedestrian safety training. They laugh,” Flucke begins. “Usually when the number drops to thirty hours I get some hands from the bicycle cops.”

Pedestrian & Bicycle Safety Training for Law Enforcement_

Unsaid is that for the rest of the police, the training is much lower. It’s not that police don’t want to make the world safer for bicyclists and pedestrians, it’s that they often don’t know how.

The good news is that it’s not that hard to get them the quality training. NHTSA has brochures and tests they can take in the squad cars, something that is probably more useful for police in cold weather cities than Los Angeles. Other can do a training course in a couple of hours with a leader. While he wasn’t promoting himself at the conference, Flucke is a natural choice to lead such a training because of the credibility he has as a (retired) member of law enforcement and a League Certified Instructor.

So for advocates looking for local police to get bicycle and pedestrian training, there are a couple of messages that law enforcement would be most receptive to:

1) It’s information that many departments aren’t getting through usual channels
2) It’s already readily available (you can get brochures from NHTSA or WE Bike)
3) Trained officers are going to make their communities safer for the most vulnerable

While most police didn’t get in toto law enforcement to make life better for bicyclists, most did get in to make their communities safer places. Emphasizing this point is one that can be a winner.

Of course, when and how an approach is made is also important. Choosing a couple moments after one is pulled over for running a stop sign is probably not the best moment.

Resman went last, with an example of how non-profits can help people after a crash. Resman, who has been active with the ATA for years, is also a survivor of two crashes. One occurred before she worked in advocacy, and she lamented that she didn’t know how to react and that there weren’t a lot of people she could talk to.

Developing Crash Support Programs (1)

After joining ATA, the Chicago advocacy group founded its Bicycle Crash Support Group. While the ATA continues to fight for safer streets to keep crashes from happening, it also recognizes that crashes do happen.

So, in 2008 ATA hired a staff person to oversee its program, which is still driven by volunteers answering phones. The program partners with attorneys who specialize inrepresenting bicyclists and pedestrians, has a crash hotline to give advice to cyclists and pedestrians immediately following a crash, hosts legal clinics and even works with the police and the state’s attorney’s office. Just as Streetsblog isn’t afraid to criticize the police, they’ve built up credibility by working with the departments when goals are aligned.

While the hotline proved popular with outside groups and the media, it turned out that the way most people heard about the hotline was word of mouth. Since the hotline was founded in 2010, over 275 people have called in seeking help. The hotline is currently on hiatus due to staffing changes.

So what advice did Reman have for those in a crash?

Most Importantly, call 911, get a police report and get medical attention. It’s important to document the event with pictures and witness information, but at least at first keep the pictures off the Internet. It’s important to get a good lawyer, but some are more interested in helping themselves than helping other people (including you.) Finding a trusted source for referrals, is important.

For advocacy groups, the benefit of such a hotline is obvious: it provides a tangible way for a non-profit to interact with the community. No city is going to build separated bike lanes on every street, but no matter the city or community victims deserve all the help they can get. And there are few people who need help as much as the victim of a car crash, especially if they had no protection when the crash happened.

Streetsblog will have more reporting on Pro Walk Pro Bike tomorrow and Monday. Stay tuned.