A bike ride captured Thursday. (Photo: SoulRider.222 via Flickr)

Cambridge Police Department figures show that bicycle riders identified as Asian got more citations for traffic violations than any other racial or ethnic group except whites over the past six years. But the significance is impossible to determine because no statistics exist on bike ridership by race in Cambridge. And no racial or ethnic group was named in 6 percent to 18 percent of cyclist encounters with police, depending on the year.

The police department gave the numbers to the city’s Police Review & Advisory Board for its most recent meeting, July 29, apparently because the police oversight panel requested them, although there is no mention in minutes of previous meetings. A representative from the department’s professional standards unit said the data “speaks for itself.”

There was no discussion except for a question from chairman Ted Robitaille: “How does the department take this data and map it to other metrics? Is it used for larger policy-making?” The board was promised that a higher-up, head of traffic enforcement Dep. Supt. Rick Riley, could answer at another meeting to be scheduled.

That meeting will be a “training session” that won’t be public, board executive secretary Brian Corr said when a Cambridge Day reporter asked to attend.

Cambridge Day asked police department spokesman Jeremy Warnick how the department could identify racial disparities in bicycle enforcement without figures on ridership by race, and how the department was using the data provided to PRAB. Warnick was also asked about the large numbers of stops where information on the cyclist’s race and ethnicity was missing.

In response to the question about identifying disparities, Warnick said: “It can be a challenge to flag minor discrepancies, in particular, but any potential discrepancies would typically be surfaced following a complaint received by [the Professional Standards Unit], which could lead to a deeper internal investigation into an officer and citations they have issued. Training (new or follow-up) and/or discipline could result if issues were identified.”

The numbers sent to PRAB did not include information on which officers issued the citations.

As for the missing information on a rider’s race, Warnick said that unless the cyclist volunteered the designation, officers had to decide what to enter, since driver’s licenses did not include it. “In some cases, it may not be clear, and thus you can see why there may be a large number of unknowns,” he said.

Warnick also said the department’s Procedural Justice Dashboard that is under development, intended to bring transparency to police department operations, “will help us become more proactive rather than reactive and intervene earlier rather than later if an officer were to exhibit bias.” But he didn’t say how that would occur; the department hasn’t revealed details about the dashboard.

Little information on race

There’s little information on the racial and ethnic composition of bicycle riders. One national report based on data from the U.S. Department of Transportation and Oak Ridge National Laboratory found that in 2009, whites accounted for 79 percent of all bike trips, down from 83 percent in 2001, while trips by blacks rose to 10 percent from 8 percent; Hispanics to 8 percent from 6 percent; and Asians to 3 percent from 2 percent.

Anecdotal information gives a different picture from the view of biking as an overwhelming white pursuit. A 2006 article in Bicycling Magazine described legions of “invisible” black and brown cyclists in Los Angeles riding cheap department store bikes to jobs; during the implementation of bike lanes years ago in Cambridge, city councillor E. Denise Simmons nodded toward a racial divide in biking, suggesting the lanes benefit mostly white residents.

In Boston, researchers counted bicyclists on Malcolm X Boulevard in 2014 for a study by professor Ann Lusk of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health examining whether riders of different races had different preferences for riding environments. They found that 55 percent were black, 36 percent white and 9 percent Hispanic.

The study included surveys of the Malcolm X Boulevard riders as well as residents of Roxbury. It found that riders of all races preferred cycle tracks, or bike paths physically separated from traffic, to other forms of bicycle infrastructure such as bike lanes, but whites favored cycle tracks by a larger margin than did non-whites. It also found that non-white cyclists were more likely than whites to store their bicycles inside their homes, which could affect planning for bike parking. Cambridge has not examined these issues.

Cambridge breaks pattern

Some other studies have found racial disparities in traffic citations of cyclists. An investigation by the Tampa Bay Times in 2015 showed that 80 percent of riders cited by police for traffic violations over a dozen years were black, and in many instances cyclists then were charged with other crimes. The newspaper, which examined more than 10,000 bike citations, reported that police focused their enforcement in black neighborhoods.

A Justice Department investigation sparked by the newspaper’s report found that the police behavior had a disparate impact on people of color, though the investigators said it wasn’t intentional.

The figures in Cambridge differ sharply from that pattern, with white riders generally making up 65 percent to 75 percent of citations and warnings. But with no figures on the race of bike riders in general, no one can say whether enforcement is equal and why Asians accounted for almost 12 percent of infractions in 2019 and more than 7 percent most other years. Census figures for 2019 show that Asians now make up the second-largest racial group in Cambridge, 16 percent of the city population, after whites, at 67 percent. At the same time, the large number of unknowns in the police department’s data on race and citations means that the true pattern could be different.

The police report also showed that in four out of the eight years of data, white cyclists were more likely than riders of other races to get a ticket rather than a warning. Again, in five of the eight years, more than 40 percent of cyclists who were stopped by police and whose race was not reported got a warning rather than a citation.

Works with police

The Police Review & Advisory Board, established in 1984 by city ordinance, is intended to provide an impartial review of complaints against police, allow citizen participation in reviewing police policies and activities, and foster good relations between residents and police. Its five members, appointed by the city manager, are supposed to reflect the city’s racial, economic and social composition. Four are white, one black, and none is Asian or Hispanic.

The board accepts complaints against the police but “works with the police department “ to investigate them; if the board does not agree with the department’s findings it can hold a hearing and make recommendations to the city manager. Of 34 complaints the board has decided since 2014, it has substantiated or partially substantiated four and sent one recommendation to the police, which did not involve discipline.

Lacking oversight

Members of the City Council’s Public Safety Committee were asked for their view of the role of PRAB. Councillor Jivan Sobrinho-Wheeler said the fact that the city manager, an unelected official, appoints members without council approval leaves “a key point of accountability … missing.” He blamed the city charter, which hasn’t been changed for decades, and said he hoped there is “a willingness in Cambridge, and on the council, to look at making a change here.”

Councillor Quinton Zondervan, chairman of the committee, said PRAB “has been ineffective” but there are better ways to reform the police than changing civilian review boards. “I don’t have a lot of faith in changing review boards to make police less violent,” he said. He said more effective actions are eliminating the legal doctrine of qualified immunity as a defense for officers accused of abuse, changing use-of-force policies and replacing police with social workers and mental health professionals as first responders and with civilians to enforce traffic laws.

“Fundamentally the way the law is structured it’s very hard to demonstrate that [a police officer] did something wrong,” he said. “In terms of the broader conversation we’re having it doesn’t feel like the place we would get a bang for our buck.”

The other committee members, vice mayor Alanna Mallon, councillor Marc McGovern and councillor Dennis Carlone, did not respond.

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