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My chat with Commander Bill

Posted by on November 9th, 2005 at 4:23 pm

Bill Sinnott

Yesterday I met with Bill Sinnott, Commander of the Traffic Division of the Portland Police. First, I want to thank everyone who emailed and left comments with questions for him. I printed them all up and left a copy with him so he could see first-hand what’s on your mind.

You might be thinking…isn’t this site about bikes? What do cops have to do with it? Good question. The fact is that the cops – especially the Traffic Division – effect our experience as cyclists in many ways; they interact with us at Critical Mass, they try and keep our streets safe, and they’re involved if/when we get in a serious crash with a motorist.

My goal in meeting with Sinnott was to try and begin a dialogue that can help cops and cyclists have a more productive relationship. I think the more we can talk to them and help them understand our perspective, the more likely they are to be attentive to our issues and vice versa. I also invited Sinnott and his officers to join in the discussion on this site and even consider contributing from time to time. I think that will happen down the road.

For now, here’s a rundown of what we talked about:

Stolen bikes:
It’s not really Sinnott’s beat, but he’s going to get me the latest trend data and something he called a “pin” map which shows the locations of all reported thefts. I’ll post that stuff once I get it.

Lights:
Sinnott is bummed that people are making this into an issue. Some people (including blowhard Lars Larson) are saying things like “don’t the cops have better things to do!” and “our tax dollars shouldn’t be spent on these!”. But the bottom line, according to Sinnott is that programs like this are nothing new (they also give out child car seats and gun locks) and he just wishes people would focus on the real issue, “it’s not about the lights…it’s about sharing the road.” On the flip side he said, “at least the word is getting out.”

I agree, people need to back off and realize that this is a great program. It is making the roads a better place to be for all of us, including motorists.

Critical Mass:
We talked about this a lot. Even if you don’t believe in or ride in Critical Mass it remains a important issue for cyclists in the city because it is sort of the litmus test of bike/cop relations. I feel like Sinnott and his officers have good intentions with CM…but I think they’re just a bit misplaced. A big issue for Sinnott is our safety. To this, I said we’re not concerned about our safety. I think 99% of Massers would agree that we would exchange their presence for a more dangerous ride any day.

That being said, Sinnott says he’d rather not be there, “eventually we won’t show up at all…I would like to say in January or February we won’t be there.” He also added that he worries that if word gets out that they won’t show up, the more extreme elements of the ride would return. “We’ll come back strong if it goes bad again,” was his way of putting it.

He also wanted to be clear that “we’re not against Critical Mass, it’s the bad apples in the bunch we’re concerned about.” And that speaks to an issue I have which is that the cops on scene at Critical Mass are influenced by the years of political and emotional baggage the ride carries with it. And I think this makes them expect bad apples which is unfair. I think they need to see the majority of riders for what they are. Bike-loving, non-violent folks just out for a ride to show the city that bikers are here and that we have a right to the road.

My big question is, why are they even showing up at all? Unfortunately I never asked Sinnott that exact, direct question. I have left him a message and I hope to hear this answer shortly (or Bill, if you’re reading this, feel free to comment!).

I brought up the fact that if they would at least call off the motorcycle officers it would be a great step. He was open to that and we are discussing an idea to make it happen. No promises yet, but I’ll keep you posted.

Corking:
(Corking is when Critical Massers stop traffic at an intersection so the whole group can ride through a red light). It is proven that this is much safer for both the Mass and cars (because we don’t end splitting up into groups). However, Sinnott is reluctant to give approval because of the liability implications. According to him, if the City approves corking and a car ends up running a light and killing a cyclist, the city could be held liable.

I think the only way corking will happen is if it is a “don’t ask, don’t tell” situation where they never give official sanction to it, but they also don’t stop us from doing it either. Of course corking would only happen if they stopped showing up to the ride altogether…which isn’t a reality a this point.

Crash investigations (or lack thereof):
This is an important issue, especially after a summer full of bike/motorist crashes. The big thing cyclists want to know is why so many serious injury crashes don’t get investigated and why is it necessary to reach a “Level 1 Trauma” in order for an investigation take place. This is a complex issue that I can’t neatly tie up at this point, but I learned a few things from Sinnott:

  • Investigations are very costly and labor-intensive (blame insurance companies).
  • Injury assessment is best done at the hospital, not on the scene…and he admitted that “a gap exists in hospitals not reporting back to the cops about the condition of the victim” (this is what went wrong in the case of Angela Valdez from the Willamette Week).
  • Cops can’t issue citations in crashes without first finding fault…and they can’t find fault without doing a full investigation…which they in turn can’t do unless the victim is labeled as a “Level 1 Trauma”.
  • This same issue exists in every bureau (home burglary, child abuse, etc…). That is, that the public always wants more investigations, but there are limited police resources to do so.

I know this won’t satisfy a lot of cyclists. I think we need to get to the bottom of the severity threshold issue. Who is responsible for that “Level 1 Trauma” law/policy? How can we go about lowering this threshold? Do the cops have the money/time to investigate more crashes?

Reporting dangerous intersections:
Sinnott is really keen on 823-SAFE. He said if you have a problem with a dangerous intersection, call the number and it will be logged and put through to a traffic safety officer. He wanted everyone to know that every single one of the calls gets recorded and assesed. If necessary, the officer will work with an ODOT engineer to fix the problem. He also recommended I send the 96 close calls submissions to Greg Raisman at PDOT to look for problem areas and cross-reference them with his existing crash maps.


Cops on sidewalks:

Sinnott pointed out that bike officers should not be riding on the sidewalk unless they are actively working. He was a bike cop himself back in the day and said technically they should be on the sidewalk only if they’re actively pursuing a suspect, trying to keep a low profile, monitoring a situation, etc… But for general riding to and from, they should use the street like the rest of us.


Letting cyclists roll through right turns:

There has been some talk about pursuing a law that would allow cyclists to roll through right turns (it is already on the books in Idaho). Surprisingly, Sinnott is open to this idea saying that, “on some levels, I think it can work,” and that it might be “worth pursuing,” but he has some major reservations about how it would be perceived by the public. I agree with him. Given the motorist/cyclist dynamic right now, would it really be worth it from a PR perspective? The anti-bike crowd would jump all over this.

****************

I believe the Traffic Division is doing great work and that they sincerely want to help cyclists. That being said, I think more education is needed on both sides if we ever hope to get on the same page. I am very encouraged at the current vibe between cops and the cycling community and I think we are in the midst of a historic opportunity to “reach across the aisle” and work together. I hope this isn’t my last meeting with Sinnott and I look forward to hearing your comments and feedback.

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Comments
  • nick November 9, 2005 at 5:31 pm

    Great post, Jonathan. It is encouraging to hear that the police might not be escorting Critical Mass at some point in the near future. Thanks much for interfacing with the police. As you said, many people fear and/or distrust cops. Often with good reason. But this sort of postive exchange is really the only way things will get better.

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  • Anonymous November 9, 2005 at 6:30 pm

    Thanks for taking time on this serving as a representative for us Jonathan.

    Generalizing about “cops” is just as low-minded as generalizing about “bicyclists”. Officer Sinnot is holding out an olive branch we should do our best to return. It’s nice to see squeaky wheels getting grease after all these years, and I hope it leads to better relations between bicyclists and the cops from an institutional level on down to our individual interactions.

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  • Ayleen November 10, 2005 at 10:15 am

    Oh I’m still not satisfied, you’re right! I was once in a car-to-car crash in high school. It was totally my fault. I was brought to the police station. No one was hurt – at all. And yet I’m hearing about people who are really hurt, but not “Trauma Level 1″ I guess, and the police won’t even come out. I don’t know, it’s just not okay that when a car hits a cyclist there is no “higher power” to do something to reprimand the person who did the injuring.

    Oh, unless you’re really really hurt.

    Seems like you’re better off to be hit by a company vehicle. I know several instances when company vehicles damaged bikes (and nicked up the cyclists) and the company agreed to replace the bike without question to protect the company’s reputation.

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  • Portland Transport November 16, 2005 at 7:17 am

    Traffic Enforcement in the Netherlands

    We had the opportunity to spend about two hours with Chief Smoorenburg during our visit to Amsterdam (the chief’s HQ was outside Utrecht, a one hour train ride, 30 minute tram ride and 20 minute walk from Amsterdam). The Chief is responsible for traff…

    Recommended Thumb up 0

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