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Big Bicycle Might Be Crazy—But They Might Also Be Right

Scott Lucas | August 26, 2013 | Story Politics

Bike riders and cops have had a rocky relationship this year, and their differences only seemed to grow in the wake of the August 14th death of 24-year old bicyclist Amelie Le Moullac, who was hit and killed by a truck making a right turn onto Sixth Street from Folsom. Bike advocates believe that the police have failed to conduct a thorough investigation, and one police officer stirred up a public relations storm when he castigated bicyclists at a memorial for Le Moullac and blamed the victim for her death.

It now appears that the city's bicycle lobby is making headway in its arguments that the accident warrants a more complete investigation—and possible charges against the driver, who has not yet been publicly identified. The cops, meanwhile, are in PR containment mode, and have begun to cooperate with Le Moullac's family's lawyer and may release an updated incident report soon. This response from the police represents a new state of affairs for the bike lobby, who have complained loudly in the past about a lack of investigations in the wake of bicycle-car collisions, and an indicator of the group's growing voice in city politics.

Indeed, not since the heyday of Critical Mass has the City been so tense around bicycling issues. Le Moullac, whose death is still under investigation by the police, is the third bicyclist to be killed after a collision with a truck this year, according to Kristin Smith of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition. It happened the day before the sentencing of bicyclist Chris Bucchere to three years probation in the killing of a pedestrian when he plowed through a crowd on Castro and Market in 2012. Earlier this summer, Polk Street merchants forced the city to retreat from a plan to reduce the amount of on street parking for cars to create a dedicated bike lane along the busy commercial corridor.

It seems increasingly clear that the Bicycle Lobby—often perceived a shrill, entitled, and paranoid—is also right.

The first incident came on Wednesday, when members of the Coalition, along with co-workers of Le Moullac from Voce Communications, held a memorial and rally at the sight of the collision. During the demonstration, San Francisco Police Sergeant Richard Ernst parked his police car in the bike lane, in what he said was an attempt to show bikers the proper way to make right turns, getting into an argument with SF Bicycle Coalition President Leah Shahum. it's not clear whether the office was acting on orders or on his own, but in either case, he made the already voaltile situation worse. Smith called the move a "deliberate endangerment of the lives of people biking" and Streetsblog accused the officer of "victim blaming." The Coalition soon filed a formal complaint against the officer.

Further raising the stakes, last Wednesday, footage of the crash was found by SF Bicycle Coalition Program Manager Marc Caswell, when after the memorial he began asking adjacent shops and residences if they had surveillance video. "The businesses told us that none of them had been asked [by the police]," said Smith. "Every seven days the footage is taped over, and we found it on the seventh day. It would have been lost." Speaking to the mistrust between the Bicycle Coalition and the Police Department , once Caswell found the security footage, he asked the office of Supervisor Jane Kim to relay it to the police to avoid any possibility of the interest group tainting potential evidence.

This discovery came despite claims from Albie Esparaza, Public Information Officer for the SFPD that “senior investigators” had “canvassed the area” soon after the collision. Smith accused the police of not followed "basic policing" when investigators failed to discover video footage of the accident taken from security cameras at a near by business. Were the police negligent in their investigation? And, if so, did bicycling fault lines play a role? Especially in light of recent stories about a mobile app that encourages public citizens to go looking for tape in the event of a crime, it’s hard not to wonder how the police could have missed such a basic element of an investigation

Continuing to add tension, the lawyer for the family, Micha Star Liberty, said on Friday that she had been denied access to the initial police incident report, a move that she described as unusual. According to Esparaza, "The investigation is still open and active. We don't want to rush to judgement. The case is still open, and the investigator will come to a conclusion that will be forwarded to the District Attorney."

On Monday, it appeared that cooler heads had begun to prevail on all sides. Liberty received a copy of the initial report in the afternoon. Higher ups within the police indicated over the weekend in a column by C.W. Nevius their disapproval of Ernst’s actions at the memorial.And Coalition spokesperson Smith highlighted information on the Coalition’s website about safety procedures for bikers, pedestrians, and drivers alike. The Coalition also renewed its offer to add truck drivers to its city-mandated safety classes (currently given to taxi drivers). It is expected that within the next few days, the Police Department will be issuing an updated version of the incident report, which will take into account evidence from the video.

Yes, they lost the Polk Street fight, at least for now, but a slap down of the PD is a big deal, and certainly gives them ammo—and swelling support from the public—in their battle over Folsom street.

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