Members of Critical Mass, a loosely organized group of urban-cycling advocates, have lodged a complaint about the conduct of one city police officer who stopped and cited four members during the group's large monthly ride.
On the evening of March 31, when a cavalcade of some 50 cyclists headed east down Penn Avenue past the Zone 5 police station in East Liberty, a cruiser with flashing lights lurched into their midst, according to four witness statements submitted to the Citizen Police Review Board on April 5. After a few cyclists maneuvered out of the cruiser's way, the statements say, the officer accelerated and blocked the entire procession at the intersection of Penn and Negley avenues.
"The officer was heading back to the station and came across the bikes in the middle of the streets," says Zone 5 Commander Linda Barone. Barone believes the four cyclists were cited because they were blocking the streets.
The group, however, believes not only that the citations were unjustified, but that the officer who issued them didn't conduct himself in a professional manner.
According to the cyclists' statements, the officer, who balked at several requests for his name, began to yell and grab cyclists by the arm and order them to dismount and disperse. Four cyclists who didn't immediately leave were issued a citation for disorderly conduct. So was one teen-ager who was not part of the cycling group but happened to be walking by.
The citations were "totally random," says Jessi Berkelhammer, who led the monthly ride that evening. "It could've been anyone."
In fact, the first of the four cyclists cited, Leeana Ninness, says that when the officer detained her, she had already parked her bike and was standing on the sidewalk guarding her cyclist friend's belongings.
Berkelhammer surmises that the officer, identified on citations as Eugene Hlavac, might have been upset when the tail end of the group ran a red light in order to catch up.
"It disrupts traffic less for the group to stay together," says Berkelhammer. Although the front of the group always waits for the green light at any intersection, she adds, sometimes trailing bikes will hit a red.
Critical Mass, whose goal is to promote urban cycling, has a presence in cities worldwide. Since the group's rebirth in Pittsburgh in 2001, Berkelhammer and a few others have led Critical Mass rides from the Carnegie Library in Oakland on the last Friday of each month. Attendance has grown from four riders to more than 200 during last year's Bike Fest.
The group's activities have sometimes been a lightning rod. In New York City, for example, a confrontation between the riders and New York Police Department during the 2004 Republican National Convention resulted in mayhem and mass arrests. In February, a New York State Supreme Court judge in Manhattan rejected the NYPD's last-ditch attempt to shut down the group's rides, but asked the parties to patch up their differences out of court, according to The New York Times.
Critical Mass cyclists here have had run-ins with police before. In April 2003, four riders spent a night in Allegheny County Jail; they'd been cited for breaking various traffic rules while cruising through Oakland with a group of roughly 70. The charges were later dismissed.
Within two days of the current incident, members of the group drafted a formal complaint to the review board, compiled a list of witnesses, and gathered statements.
Morgan Ress, a veteran of Critical Mass in New York City who moved here two months ago, doesn't think the recent citations portend any future clashes. But, he says, there is no guarantee against further confrontations unless the group acts.
"We want to make sure [the cited cyclists] are cleared of the charges and hold the officer accountable for his actions," he says.
Critical Mass arrests blog: criticalmassarrests.blogspot.com.