Last Friday, it probably seemed like a relaxing, peaceful weekend was waiting for Santa Paula Police Chief Steven McLean. Instead, a firestorm of controversy erupted late Friday evening, and into Saturday, when a video that one of his reserve officers had made surfaced on social media sites.
In that video, the reserve officer, riding as a passenger in a car (and on her own time), made sarcastic comments about cyclists that she passed on the road. That was the entire point of her video—making mean comments about people riding bikes, in an attempt to be funny, in the same way the wannabe popular kids pick on other kids, and try to get everybody else to laugh at it and go along for the ride.
Except this wasn’t a junior high school student making an attempt at popularity with the cool kids—she was a reserve police officer. And while she thought she was picking on the nerds, she was actually picking on the “cool kids” in her attempt to boost her own popularity. The fact is, interest in bicycling has been growing by leaps and bounds for many years now, among everybody from hip urban trendsetters, to working people trying to save a dollar, to families bonding over a common activity, to aging baby boomers looking for exercise, and everybody in between—and it is only getting more popular with each passing year.
But picking the wrong target for her juvenile spite was only the tip of the iceberg. From the perspective of people who just want to ride their bikes, whether for exercise, or to economize, or to reduce their environmental impact, or just for the fun of it all, here was an officer of the law expressing her hatred of cyclists for no reason other than their presence on the road. And let’s be clear—when she repeatedly mentioned running over bicyclists, and ended her video with a statement saying “Like you’ve never thought about it” appearing over a graphic photo of an infamous collision in Mexico, in which a drunk American motorist plowed into a group of cyclists, killing one and injuring several more, her expressed hatred was seen as bordering on an incitement to violence.
And let’s be clear about something else, too. Every cyclist she passed in her video was riding lawfully, and courteously. There were no “scofflaw cyclists” in her video, just ordinary people minding their business, lawfully riding their bikes and courteously sharing the road. There was absolutely no rationale for a reserve police officer to be riding around expressing her desire to run them over. Even if she was on her own time.
That’s not all. When the controversy broke, a message on the Santa Paula Police Department’s Facebook page expressed support for the video, and encouraged cyclists to obey the law. Clearly, whoever wrote that message—another reserve officer, it turned out—was completely out of touch with what was happening on the street. And unfortunately for Chief McLean, he got the initial blame for supporting the video.
But Chief McLean is nobody’s fool. He took immediate, decisive action, placing both reserve officers on administrative leave. And before the weekend was over, Laura Weintraub, the officer who had made the video, had resigned from the Police Department. It’s obvious that these two reserve officers created an enormous public relations problem that he didn’t ask for or want, and the Chief should not be singled out for blame in this incident. In fact, Chief McLean deserves full credit for swiftly dealing with a problem in his Department.
And now it turns out there’s a silver lining in all of this. When the controversy broke, Chief McLean expressed his willingness to discuss the incident with anybody who wanted to discuss it. Well, somebody took him up on it, and gave the Chief a call. And true to his word, Chief McLean was ready to talk. The result? This Friday, bicycle advocates from Ventura County and the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition will sit down with Chief McLean and explore ways to build bridges, and to bring some bicycle education to a police department with limited resources and a willingness to listen.
They say when life hands you lemons, make lemonade. I say, this is the time to make lemonade in the Citrus Capital of the World.
Bob Mionske is a former U.S. Olympic and pro cyclist, and a nationally-known bicycle accident lawyer based in Portland, Oregon and affiliated with the Bike Law network. A prolific advocate for the rights of cyclists, Mionske authored Bicycling & the Law in 2007, and has continued his advocacy on behalf of the rights of cyclists with his Road Rights column inBicycling magazine.