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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 The ticket was later withdrawn after the women complained to the sheriff.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.

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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