Portlander Chris L. was just trying to get home and avoid the snowpocalypse.
Around 2:00 pm today Chris (who requested that we don’t use his last name) was biking east on East Burnside. There’s an unprotected bike lane on that street and it’s directly adjacent to three standard lanes. Between SE Grand and 9th Chris avoided two auto users who encroached into the bike lane as he came by (one turned in front of him, another waited and inched along, forcing him to swerve). So by the time he came up next to a woman driving a Toyota Prius just east of 8th Avenue, he was was already a bit frazzled. When he noticed she was on her phone, he became angry and frustrated. As he passed her, Chris slowed and slapped the side of the car.
“Put the phone fuckin’ down!” yelled Chris as he continued to pedal.
What Chris didn’t realize was that Portland Police Bureau Officer Bill Balzer was parked right next to him in an unmarked car when it happened.
Officer Balzer, a 21-year PPB veteran, proceeded to pull Chris over a few blocks later.
What happened next was a rather colorful conversation between Officer Balzer and Chris that lasted nearly nine minutes. And because Chris happened to be recording his ride home, he caught the entire thing on camera (the car slap and the conversation). It’s rare that we get a front-row seat to such a heated exchange about such an important issue.
At times Chris was clearly agitated and he yelled (with profanity) over Balzer. Both men tried at different times to reason with each other, but neither was able to get the other one to see their perspective. Both Balzer and Chris said things that were cringe-worthy. And Balzer said a few things that don’t seem to fit into a City that has made a strong commitment to Vision Zero.
Chris didn’t back down. After he asked for Balzer’s identification (along with a threat that this would be ‘Going up on BikePortland’), Balzer wrote Chris up for a warning.
You can watch the entire exchange in Chris’s video. I’ve shared most of the text of the conversation below…
Chris [as Balzer pulls up]: They were on their phone in the snow!
Balzer [getting out of his car and walking in front of Chris]: I don’t care. That give you no right to come and hit the side of their car.
Chris: You don’t care about my safety?
Balzer: I do care about your safety, but it doesn’t give you a right to go and hit their car for crying out loud. It’s not your responsibility to tell someone to get off their phone. That is my responsibility … when you’re hitting the car you’re swerving out of the bike lane.
Chris: No, I was well within the bike lane. I have it on camera.
Balzer: Well… if the car is damaged.. then it’s… you can’t hit cars!
Chris: I had one car make a right hook in front of me on the way here too… I’m just trying to get home!
Balzer: You know what, that’s the danger of riding a bike in the city. It’s what happens. Cars pull in front of me, cars pull in front of you.
Chris: I’m more vulnerable being on a bike.
Balzer: I would agree with that; but who’s making the decision of riding a bike and riding in a car?
Chris: Me. It is my right as a cyclist to want to be as safe as possible. And when people are breaking the law it is not their right to use their phone while driving.
Balzer: But it’s not your right to hit their car to tell them not to. Do you agree? Can you tell me anywhere where it says that someone can go up to someone’s car and hit their car because they’re breaking the law?
Chris: No, it’s not my legal obligation to do that; but it [cell phone use] worries me. I bike across the Burnside Bridge everyday and 70 percent of the people are on their phone.
Balzer: Seven out of 10 cars? I would have to disagree with that… Look, I can’t stop everyone from using their cell phones.
Chris: Well, maybe I can scare them enough so they won’t do it again.
Balzer: It’s not your job to scare people to not use their cell phone.
[Balzer gives Chris his business card and his officer number and Chris gives Balzer his ID.]
Chris [to himself as Balzer writes the warning]: To be on their phone in the snow… of all times!
Balzer: To be riding down the bike lane with your hands off the handlebars hitting another car in the snow. I would ask, is that safe?
Chris: I’m a good rider.
Balzer: So if you’re a good rider you can do stuff like that? That person might say, ‘I’m a good car driver’… We’re going to have to agree to disagree on this… You can’t be hitting cars when you’re riding down your bike lane.
Chris: That’s fair.
Balzer: I mean listen, people are trying to get out of town early to get out of town before the snow — as you are as well — it’s not going to do any good for you to hit someone’s car that’s on a cell phone.
Chris: I’ve had three close calls on the way here! I have a right as a cylist to be safe and cops aren’t doing enough to enforce it.
Balzer: I can tell you statistically that we’ve written way less citations to bicyclists over the last year compared to the previous year.
Chris [yelling]: Yeah! As you should. Who fuckin’ cares about a cyclist breaking the law?!
Balzer: Well, you have to follow the same rules whether you like it or not.
Chris: She was not following the law.
Balzer: Well neither were you. You cannot, as you are driving down the road, you cannot throw your hand into someone else’s car.
Balzer: I’m going to ask you to please keep your hands on the handlebars and refrain from hitting other vehicles, even if they upset you… I did not see the person on their cell phone. If I would have seen that…
Chris [interrupting Balzer]: Because she put it away after I scared her! Maybe she’s like, ‘Oh shit, that’s right, that’s dangerous. Maybe I’ll put it away now.’
Balzer: Christopher, there are a lot of things that are dangerous about driving.
Chris: Yeah! And she willingly added to it [the danger]!
Balzer: We’re going to have to agree to disagree… You should keep your hands to yourself, because if there’s damage to the car you could be liable.
Chris: I will. Fair enough. That’s fine.
I’m glad this didn’t escalate. And while I’m concerned at some of Balzer’s responses, he also showed some restraint. I was in a situation last year when I was pulled over for by an officer who wanted to reprimand me. When I talked back and clearly disagreed with the officer, he got mean and wrote me up a ticket to teach me a lesson. (I took the ticket to court and it was thrown out after the officer failed to show up.)
If you find yourself in this position, try and keep your cool. And keep your camera running.
— Jonathan Maus, (503) 706-8804 – firstname.lastname@example.org