June 25, 2021

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Should N.J. cops have seized teens’ bicycles? Experts weigh in on controversy.

An interaction between Perth Amboy police and a group of wheelie-popping teen bicyclists demonstrated the best and the worst of community policing, police experts told NJ Advance Media.

In a 17-minute video posted to YouTube, a large group of cyclists on BMX bikes filmed themselves riding around town, weaving in and out of traffic and doing tricks. They’re eventually stopped by police at least twice, with one interaction ending in applause and the other with a teenager in handcuffs.

“It’s not for the level obviously (of) a George Floyd or Breonna Taylor situation, but it definitely connects on the level of police power, because that’s what this is,” said Jason Williams, an assistant professor of Justice Studies at Montclair State University who co-edited a book on Black men’s interactions with the criminal justice system. “It’s, ‘I have the power to inconvenience you, to arrest you, to make things harder for you, and I’m going to do it.’”

In the first videotaped interaction, which experts said was largely positive, an officer issues the group a warning, saying a big group of bike riders can cause traffic safety issues.

“I appreciate you guys stopping, okay,” the officer tells the group. “I told you, I promised you we’re not taking your bikes,” later asking the group to “please be a little safer for your safety.”

“The way the officer with the white shirt handled it was perfect. As a matter of fact, it was so perfect that the kids were clapping afterwards because they just did not expect it to go that well,” Alfred S. Titus, Jr., a retired New York City detective and assistant Professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said.

The first officer approached the situation with a “community policing attitude,” Williams said.

“He understood that some of them had an attitude– understandably so, these are teens, they’re in adolescence– and of course understanding some of the tension between their communities and policing,” Williams told NJ Advance Media.

The tone of the interaction shifts after a cut in the video, when a female officer says she is confiscating the bicycles after the group ignored a prior warning from her. The interaction escalates from there, and ends with one teen taken into custody and all the bikes confiscated. (The rider who posted the video did not respond to NJ Advance Media’s request for comment.)

“He’s a little bit out of control over there,” an officer can be heard as they’re placing a teenager in handcuffs.

Police criminalizing attitudes has long been an issue in how officers approach interactions with minority community members, Williams said.

“They feel they don’t have the right to speak and ask questions and demand better from policing,” Williams said.

It’s unclear if the teen was arrested or taken into protective police custody for a parent to pick up. Perth Amboy police did not respond to requests for comment. But taking the teen into custody at all was not a proportionate response, said Titus.

“(The second officer) should have the experience enough to know that there was no reason to take him into custody. He wasn’t violent, he wasn’t flailing his arms, he wasn’t trying to attack— he wasn’t doing anything like that. You’re just voicing your opinion, which he’s allowed to do, and he gave the bike up,” Titus said.

The Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office said in a statement on Tuesday that it was investigating the incident.

Both Williams and Titus said the current national climate around race and policing, particularly during the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, which concluded Tuesday when he was found guilty in the killing of George Floyd, has increased the scrutiny on interactions like this.

“If there was a reason to arrest (the Black teenager), then everyone should have been arrested. You don’t just choose the one Black kid, and arrest him because, again the optics (are bad),” Titus said.

Under Perth Amboy ordinance, bicycles can be confiscated if the rider is breaking the rules and not returned until any fines are paid off, a consequence the entire group faces.

If the group had been warned about their bike riding before, then confiscating the bikes was an appropriate response, but not if this was their first warning, Titus said.

The fines associated with confiscation can cause significant financial hardships for lower income people, Williams said, whose parents might not be able to afford the time off of work to collect the bike, or the fee itself.

“I think the punitivity in the ordinance, ‘oh, you can’t get it back until you pay it off,’ is what’s most egregious about that, because these kids…more likely come from economically challenged backgrounds, and it’s a way to keep them out (of the town),” Williams said.

It’s possible the teens, who say in the video they are from Edison, didn’t even know the rules in Perth Amboy, Titus said. The officers say several times bikes in Perth Amboy are required to be licensed, although Council President William A. Petrick says that would not apply to out-of-town residents.

Bicycling groups strongly condemned the licensing ordinance, saying it’s unfair.

“Requiring a license to use a bicycle is like requiring a license to walk. A pointless and costly policy that creates barriers to a healthy and low-cost form of transportation and creates opportunity for discriminatory enforcement against communities of color,” the New Jersey Bike & Walk Coalition said in a tweet.

While the cycles were ostensibly confiscated in the name of safety, this approach to policing does little to keep streets safer for cyclists, Patrick Conlon, the president of Bike JC and the owner of a Newark bike shop, said.

“When’s the last time someone got a speeding ticket and they confiscated your car and arrested you and said you have to pay a speeding ticket before you get your car back?” Conlon said.

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Katie Kausch may be reached at [email protected]. Tell us your coronavirus story or send a tip here.