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Law enforcement's relationship with bicyclists is often uneasy and hostile

Law enforcement's relationship with bicyclists is often uneasy and hostile. If you're a cyclist, assume nothing when interacting with a police officer or deputy.

Deputy Dale Peterson confronted two women bicyclists on the High Trestle Trail north of Des Moines for failing to stop at a stop sign. Actually, both Cathy Olson and Lisa Schaa stopped, but he said that Schaa made an "emergency stop," so he ticketed her anyway. Getting the ticket, which was originally three tickets, was an unnecessarily long, patronizing, and complicated process.

"Do you girls know what a little red octagon sign means?" Deputy Peterson asked them. They aren't "girls." Cathy Olson is an English teacher at Boone High School. 

Addressing the women as "girls" was a bad beginning and the encounter went downhill from there. Olson and her friend Lisa Schaa were smart enough to address Deputy Peterson as "sir" and remain calm. Cathy Olson, however, was afraid she'd say something she shouldn't, so she retreated down the trail. The deputy sped after her on the trail with his squad car. He ticketed her for failing to obey an order although she wasn't aware of his having given an order. The ticket was later withdrawn after the women complained to the sheriff.

Olson and Schaa were smarter than I was in a similar situation. They knew the deputy had the power in the situation. They didn't assume that they were the deputy's equals. They kept their cool and asked for a jury trial. They will have free legal representation.

I made the mistake of thinking that I was an equal in my confrontation in mid-March 2007 with an Iowa City police officer, Marty Leik. I'd called on Officer Leik to help me with a motorist who had self-righteously bullied me off the road.

That was a mistake. If you're on a bicycle, don't assume that a cop will come to your defence if you encounter a motorist who's a bully. Don't ask for help unless you're seriously injured, and don't try to reason with a deputy or a police officer if you are unfortunate enough to have to deal with one.

Apparently, arguing with a police officer about who was at fault indicates a lack of proper respect. The law is whatever a police officer says it is and reality is whatever he says it is. There's nothing more to talk about.

If a cop believes that because you're a bicyclist you "must have done something wrong," even if they didn't see you do it, then hold your tongue even if you know you didn't do anything wrong.

African-Americans routinely pulled over for "driving while black" know these things. Their parents teach them from an early age to be respectful and courteous to law enforcement at all times.

I was riding my bicycle on Mall Drive near Sycamore Mall on the southeast side of Iowa City in mid-March 2007. A motorist in a large black Yukon SUV filled with about four 20-year-old males from Henry County drove up behind me, wouldn't pass, and repeatedly honked at me. I was confused and scared. I kept looking behind me wondering what his problem was. Why didn't he pass me? Nobody was coming in the opposite lane.

After the Yukon turned into the Ace Hardware parking lot, I confronted one of the young men in the vehicle to ask him why he was harassing me. He said, "There's a nice sidewalk over there. Why don't you ride on it?"

I pointed out to him that it's legal for bicyclists to ride on the road unless the road is an interstate highway, but he still felt that I should have been on the sidewalk.

I motioned to a police officer driving by to stop and help me explain to the motorist that I had a right to ride my bicycle on the street without being bullied. The cop was having none of it.

He started out with a friendly gambit like, "I own a bicycle." Unable to sustain this pretense, he immediately broke off into an angry rant: "I know you bicyclists! I've seen you blow through stop lights and stop signs," and so on. 

The fact that I'd done none of those things and the fact that he hadn't witnessed the motorist harassing me from behind or witnessed my own riding behavior apparently didn't alter his overtly biased view.

"You must have been doing something wrong," he concluded. He guessed that I was riding in the center of the road. If I was, it was because there were big puddles in the hollowed out gutter on the bend where it had rained the day before and because the motorist harassing me had scared me enough that I wandered from the right to the center of the lane as I looked behind me. It's hard to look backwards while riding forward in a straight line.

There must be some sort of culturally offensive symbol that a bicyclist represents to those who come from the dominant car culture. I don't know what it is, but I know that a bicyclist sharing the road with motorized vehicles appears to represent something offensive to many law enforcement officers and other drivers on the road. Most drivers are courteous, but some aggressive drivers make the roadways unsafe.

I don't know why, but I do know now that the law is whatever a law enforcement officer says it is. If he says, "I know you bicyclists. You blow stops signs, red lights. You must have been doing something wrong," that's how he sees it and you must remain calm, address him respectfully, and refrain from pleading your case if you want things to go reasonably well. If you do reason with him, he won't think you respect his authority, and you'll only get yourself in trouble.

What did I get arrested for? "Disorderly conduct." That's another phrase for arguing with a cop who tells you what you must have done to provoke an incident of motorist bullying that he didn't see.

Up till the point where he had me in cuffs and was putting me in the squad car, I hadn't lost it. When I found myself for the first time in my life perched in cuffs on a hard squad car seat, I told him what I thought of him, his mohawk haircut, his personality, his ability to discern reality from fiction, and so on. I should have kept my mouth shut.

I didn't get my one phone call at the Johnson County Jail for a couple of hours until I could hear my husband's voice as he bailed me out. I was then offered my phone call and was forced to sign a paper saying that I'd been offered my phone call and declined it. Obviously, I didn't need to call my husband when he was already there. What a joke.

Since my husband wasn't allowed to withdraw more than $200 at a time from the bank ATM, our son withdrew the remaining $125 to get me out of jail. You have to like a kid who bails his mom out of jail instead of the other way around.

As bicyclist Cathy Olson said after her confrontation with Deputy Barney Fife on the High Trestle Trail, "you can't make this stuff up."

I know an Iowa City police officer, Colin Fowler, who is a thoroughly decent guy and rides with RAGBRAI Team Regulators, three-fourths of whom are police officers from Cedar Rapids with at least one from Independence. 

I wish every law enforcement officer rode a bicycle for commuting and for pleasure. The world would be a better place, the officers would be healthier, and I'd feel a lot safer on the road knowing that the police, too, know what bicyclists go through sometimes.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Matthew Georges July 16, 2012 at 04:29 AM
It's true, even those who have lost their licenses still need transportation to get to work, buy groceries for their families, and other errands. Leave it to someone with a weak argumentative position to pick out the one example that suits his needs and disregard the others.
Maria Houser Conzemius July 16, 2012 at 02:04 PM
+1, Matthew Georges!
Maria Houser Conzemius July 16, 2012 at 04:22 PM
Billy Zelsnack, please. Available transportation options in downtown Iowa City are, in order of options least likely to pollute the air and contribute to global warming: 1. Bicycling/walking/skateboarding. 2. Taking city buses fueled with biodiesel. 3. Driving a fuel-efficient car. 4. Driving an SUV/pick-up truck. 5. Driving a Hummer/semi.
Maria Houser Conzemius July 16, 2012 at 06:18 PM
Billy, give up. You've lost the argument. I forgot to list motorcycles. I may have had a mental block on motorcycles because so many Iowa City cops and retired Iowa City cops ride around town on motorcycles without helmets, including Marty Leik and Troy Kelsay. They say if you live through your first six months on a motorcycle your chances of survival improve after that. I'm against underpowered gas-fueled scooters. They're not fast enough to move when you need to move quickly and too many kids ride them without helmets.
Proud UNI Grad July 16, 2012 at 07:44 PM
"Some" people on bikes think they are above the law because they have never been ticketed for disobeying the laws. Those same folks give the rest of us cyclist a bad reputation. But, it is the same with "some" drivers". They speed, drive drunk, run red lights etc. I would hardly say that "drivers are all disrespectful idiots", though. There are bad of each, but it doesn't change the rights of the rest of us. Bikes can go on roads if they choose...by law. If there is a path nearby, then I think it is stupid and inconsiderate to ride the roads unless you have to. But, riding on sidewalks is extremely dangerous to both the cyclist, other pedestrians and to motor vehicles that aren't used to looking for fast moving traffic on a sidewalk. And, yes, I said "fast moving". I ride anywhere from 15 mph (slowest flat terrain speed) up to 30 mph on a downhill. Sidewalks are made for walkers and joggers. Not bikers. Cars need to watch out for bikers. But bikers need to obey the laws and watch out for cars just as much. Bikers need to remember that if a car doesn't watch out for you, you lose!!
Maria Houser Conzemius July 16, 2012 at 08:39 PM
Think about it, Billy, and the answer will come to you. Take as much time as you need.
Maria Houser Conzemius July 16, 2012 at 09:45 PM
Billy, I didn't call you a twit or fat. You know that, and frankly, you're starting to get annoying.
Maria Houser Conzemius July 17, 2012 at 01:00 AM
You figure out which argument you lost and get back to me. Take as much time as you need.
Matthew Georges July 17, 2012 at 06:29 AM
Maria, I agree with you to an extent, one can certainly take a city bus, assuming: 1) It isn't Sunday, 2) There is a route heading to where you need to go, and 3) Time is not an issue for you while traveling. Billy, I understand your concern about bicycles not being able to travel at the same speed as automobiles, but I disagree that this fact makes them inappropriate for road traffic or that it is impossible for the two to travel safely on the same surface. The fact is hundreds of Iowa City residents and hundreds of thousands across the nation choose cycling as their primary choice of transportation. Some times accidents occur, but for the most part, we cyclists get to our destinations safely, or we wouldn't do it. I am sorry you feel "inconvenienced" when you have to turn your steering wheel, or press a pedal in your car to pass a cyclist, I really am. That must be tough. Also, it is OK with me that you choose to drive as your mode of transportation, just don't try to tell me how I should commute. I am glad you claim to be respectful and cautious around cyclists when you drive, and that is all I am asking for from the driving community as a whole.
Maria Houser Conzemius July 17, 2012 at 01:51 PM
+1, Matthew Georges! Thanks for intervening.
Matthew Georges July 17, 2012 at 02:28 PM
Billy, so in your perfect world, nobody would turn left out of parking lots, nobody would ride bicycles for transportation, and your wife would stay home and not have a job, got it!
Matthew Georges July 17, 2012 at 02:51 PM
Exactly my point, stop wasting my time and the time of others by arguing a losing position in this forum. Thanks.
Proud UNI Grad July 17, 2012 at 03:58 PM
"Some" people on bikes think they are above the law because they have never been ticketed for disobeying the laws. Those same folks give the rest of us cyclist a bad reputation. But, it is the same with "some" drivers". They speed, drive drunk, run red lights, drive too slowly etc. I would hardly say that "drivers are all disrespectful idiots", though. There are bad of each, but it doesn't change the rights of all. Bikes can go on roads if they choose...by law. If there is a path nearby (adjacent to the road), then I think it is "stupid" and inconsiderate to ride the roads unless you have to. But, riding on sidewalks is extremely dangerous to both the cyclist, other pedestrians and to motor vehicles that aren't used to looking for fast moving traffic on a sidewalk. And, yes, I said "fast moving". I ride anywhere from 15 mph (slowest flat terrain speed) up to 30 mph on a downhill. Sidewalks are made for walkers and joggers. Not bikers. Cars need to be aware of and be considerate of bikers...PERIOD. But bikers also need to obey the laws, be considerate of and watch out for cars just as much. At the end of the day, we bikers need to remember that if a car doesn't play by the rules or if we don't play by the rules it still has the same result...we lose!!
Maria Houser Conzemius July 17, 2012 at 07:08 PM
+1, Matthew Georges!
Maria Houser Conzemius July 17, 2012 at 07:14 PM
Proud UNI Grad, the solution is to complete the streets and put a paved shoulder without rumble strips on every street, which is better for the streets, since they don't deteriorate as rapidly and get narrower as they deteriorate, and better for cyclists. No cyclist should feel obligated to use a nearby path, especially if it is a sidewalk. Riding on sidewalks is dangerous. We cyclists have a right to ride on the road and we are going to continue to exercise that right. "Nearby paths"/trails don't always take us to where we need to go.
Proud UNI Grad July 17, 2012 at 07:21 PM
I agree 100% with you, Maria. I would love to see more paved shoulders (i.e. 27th street past the UNI Dome). I definitely would NOT condone riding on a sidewalk as I mentioned. And as I said, use paths whenever possible. Unfortunately it isn't' always possible and we have every right to be on the road. We also have every responsibility of riding on the road, though, too. Maybe even more responsibility, you could say, because others' carelessness could lead to our own deaths. Doesn't mean they are right, just that they drive a bigger vehicle. I use the same caution around semis on the interstate. They sometimes bully and act like they own the road, but at the end of the day they will win in a "confrontation".
Maria Houser Conzemius July 17, 2012 at 07:56 PM
+1, Proud UNI Grad! Yes, there is always someone bigger than us on the road. Even semis have to worry about hitting another semi or a train. I try to anticipate traffic ahead of time. My dad taught me to always give myself an out when I was learning to drive. Expect people to do something stupid and/or illegal, because sometimes they do. Once on RAGBRAI there were four or five troopers directing bike traffic and car traffic onto the road at the same time, and I hung back, but my Dad didn't. He got hit by a car; I didn't. Of course the troopers wouldn't admit that they were working at cross purposes with each other. I find that when I'm too craven and hug the right side of the road too tightly, motorists sometimes force me into a crack, a pothole, broken glass, sand, branches, or a storm sewer, which means I need to ride further to the left like my husband does. As scared as I am in traffic, that's difficult, but sometimes you just can't let a car bully you into a dangerous situation and I confront bad drivers whenever I can. Once I confronted a semi driver.
Matthew Georges July 18, 2012 at 01:06 AM
Billy, lots of things worth doing can be considered dangerous. Speaking of unpopular arguments, what dies your wife think about you calling her and other cyclists, "children playing in the street?" You obviously cannot win this argument in your own home, and therefore have no chance of winning it here. That's what I mean by a losing argument, that you and your flimsy position, that basically might makes right, will never convince me nor other cyclists to abandon our primary modes of transportation. You can yell "physics!" until you are blue in the face and people will still continue to commute by bike. Cyclists aren't going anywhere Billy, more and more people are leaving their cars in the garage every day, and you need to get used to that perceived inconvenience of bikers sharing the road with cars. In the same way, I don't think I will ever convince you that it is reasonable to bike on roadways, so I am done directly arguing with you, I have made my point. It is up to you to make that decision for yourself but whatever you decide, it is still your duty to act civilized and responsible on the roadways.
Matthew Georges July 18, 2012 at 01:56 AM
Brakes, Billy. Brakes are the reason bikes are different from skateboards and rollerblades. I know you haven't won at home, because if your wife bought your argument, she wouldn't be riding her bike to work. I know far more people who have gone to the hospital due to car accidents than in bike vs car collisions. Again, you are entitled to your opinion, but mine is you are wrong.
Maria Houser Conzemius July 18, 2012 at 12:34 PM
+1, Matthew Georges! I couldn't have said it better or as well. Thank you. Many young people aged 18-35 years, whom the new Newsweek refers to as "Generation Screwed," don't have the option of buying a car when it is so difficult to pay for rent and food. Buying a car is not a sound economic decision for many of those exploited young workers.
Maria Houser Conzemius July 18, 2012 at 01:01 PM
Matthew Georges, good job.
Julie VanDyke August 02, 2012 at 07:29 PM
"Law enforcement's relationship with bicyclists is often uneasy and hostile" Well, pretty much law enforcement's relationship with everyone is often uneasy and hostile...
Maria Houser Conzemius August 02, 2012 at 08:23 PM
Julie, that's so true, but some groups activate the culture war response in law enforcement more than others. Most law enforcement officers, with notable exceptions like RAGBRAI Team Regulators (75% cops), like vehicles with keys, including motorcycles, and do not approve of using your muscles to move instead. This may be a hangover from America's agrarian era when back-breaking manual labor was replaced with motorized equipment and some folks started driving to their mailbox. Watch Dave Chapelle's sketch on white justice administered to black pimps and gangbangers vs. black justice administered to an upper middle-class white family. It's hilarious. Maybe on YouTube?
Jack F August 02, 2012 at 09:48 PM
Billy you cannot argue with biking zealots. On my way to work I watch a biker run a stopsign crossing a busy 55mph road. Then I stopped at a stop sign and the biker turning left with their own sign never stopped and put her feat down. They should be ticketed every time they break the law. They should get a ticket at every stop light camera but they don't because they refuse to liscense their Peddle Powered Vehicle like the rest of us and pay a plate fee to ride the roads.
Jack F August 02, 2012 at 09:51 PM
Maria- maybe stay to roads posted 35MPH and under. Stay safe my friend.
Maria Houser Conzemius August 02, 2012 at 09:56 PM
Billy you cannot argue with biking zealots. On my way to work I watch a biker run a stopsign crossing a busy 55mph road. Then I stopped at a stop sign and the biker turning left with their own sign never stopped and put her feat down. They should be ticketed every time they break the law. They should get a ticket at every stop light camera but they don't because they refuse to liscense their Peddle Powered Vehicle like the rest of us and pay a plate fee to ride the roads. The bicyclist crossing the 55-mph road should have stopped at the stop sign. However, sometimes it's just better to go at a four-way stop when no one is there so you don't get into an "argument" with a motorized vehicle over whose turn it is to go. It's an "argument" that the pedal-powered bicyclist will lose every time. It's not worth it. Better to just scoot out of the way instead of assuming that when it's your turn, the motorized vehicle driver will let you go. In some states, that's legal because a bicyclist has a better view without impediments than someone driving a vehicle.
Maria Houser Conzemius August 02, 2012 at 09:57 PM
Jack F., *Damn. Put double quotes around the first paragraph. I just copied it to make sure I could read it again while formulating my answer.
Jack F August 03, 2012 at 01:16 AM
You know you just liked my statement so much that you just had to repeat it under your own name. :-)
Maria Houser Conzemius August 04, 2012 at 01:03 PM
Jack F, as if! :-)
Maria Houser Conzemius August 04, 2012 at 01:10 PM
Jack F., we try to stay on roads posted 35 mph and under, but a long ride often necessitates a ride on Sand Road, which, thank God, has a wide paved shoulder on both sides. Even a short ride with some hill work built in necessitates a ride on American Legion Road, which has no paved shoulder at all and no sidewalks, either. So I often ride in perpetual terror, but my heart, leg, arm, and shoulder muscles are all getting stronger. Trails are really more my thing but there aren't enough of them. Shade is even more my thing in this terribly hot weather!

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