A stand-up cop

July 31, 2014 § 40 Comments

When Laura Weintraub posted her inane video, insinuating that hitting cyclists in your car was not only good, but something that everyone secretly wants to do, the shit hit the Internet. She is now in hiding, having received death threats and having been told that she would be decapitated. She has also been booted off the Santa Paula police force, where she served for three years in the records department as a reserve officer.

She will never work in law enforcement again.

Moral of the story: The Internet’s a bitch, yo.

But as with every story, there’s a back story as well. When Chief Steve McLean offered to talk with anyone who had concerns about Ms. Weintraub’s “embarrassing” video, I took him up on the offer. Expecting voicemail, I was surprised to speak with the chief himself. “You pick the day and time, and I’ll clear my calendar for you,” he said.

So last Friday, Eric Bruins of LA County Bicycle Coalition, Nina Moskol of the Santa Clarita Valley Bicycle Coalition, Randi Zabriskie of Yield to Life, her husband David, and I met with Chief McLean in Santa Paula to figure out what had happened and how we could make some lemonade. Quickly.

What became clear after only a few minutes is the following:

  1. Chief McLean took responsibility for his employee, even though Ms. Weintraub made it off the clock, as a civilian, in a different city, in a different county, and never affiliated herself or the video with the police department.
  2. Administrative action was immediately taken against Ms. Weintraub. She was put on leave, then terminated from the force. This all happened in less than 72 hours.
  3. Despite the fact that none of Ms. Weintraub’s actions had any affiliation with the department, the city and the police department felt the full wrath of the bicycling community.

Many people might be fine with that last part. I’m not, because it turns out that Santa Paula is hardly the bike-hating, cyclist-murdering place that Ms. Weintraub’s actions have wrongly made it out to be. The city has hosted the Amgen Tour of California three times. The city has implemented a $4.2 million bike trail, part of a rails-to-trails project that will ultimately connect Piru to Fillmore to Santa Paula to Ventura to the sea. Santa Paula is the first city in the project to complete its segment of the trail.

Santa Paula has recently completed the design phase for a Class II bike lane from Harvard Boulevard to Santa Paula Street. This $650,000, grant-funded project soon moves into the implementation phase. Additional planned projects will connect the bike lane to the rails-to-trails corridor.

The city is more than committed to the recreational and transportation side of cycling. It has three full-time bike officers, an impressive number for a city that only has 28 police officers total. An annual bike fair and bike rodeo have taken place in the city for years, and, what’s a revealing statistic for cyclists accustomed to getting harassed by law enforcement, there hasn’t been a single traffic citation written for a cyclist in the past year.

Tack on the fact that Santa Paula is a key part of the popular cycling corridor that goes to Ojai and Lake Casitas, and it’s no exaggeration to say that with regard to Ms. Weintraub’s actions, the city and its police department have gotten a bum rap. Unlike Calabasas, the city where Ms. Weintraub lives and shot the video, a city that is one of the wealthiest enclaves in California and the home to numerous celebrities and movie stars, Santa Paula is a gritty small town with significant social problems.

The biggest one is crime. The city has suffered from a plague of violent crime — nine murders last year alone — after the city council reduced the size of the police force. As LA-area gangs and drug runners have moved in, the city hired Chief McLean to deal with the problem. He reduced violent crime by 40% in his first year alone, this in a city where many of the families have one parent in jail, and where many others are headed by a single parent or by two parents who both work full time. With a shoestring budget, the police department and the community have done much in terms of outreach to bicycle riders.

Nonetheless, every city can improve when it comes to bike-car-community relations. Chief McLean took the meeting by the horns and worked with us to develop the following three proposals:

  1. Bring in a bicycle education course from LA County Bicycle Coalition, to be delivered to the city’s bicycle cops.
  2. Use the bicycle officers to perform outreach and education to the broader community at the annual bike expo and other venues.
  3. Designate two school resource officers to teach bicycle safety at the elementary and middle school level in Santa Paula.

We also discussed a wide-ranging series of possibilities for furthering bike-community-motorist awareness, not limited to an education and registration program modeled after the LA Sheriff’s Department program that Chief McLean spearheaded when he was captain at the Alta Dena Substation. What was clear was that increased coordination and cooperation with Santa Clarita Valley BC, LA County BC, and Yield to Life were all things that the department was more than willing to commit to.

What was also clear is that Chief McLean and his department deserve praise for the way they handled an incredibly tough situation. They’re ready to move ahead. Let’s judge them not by the mistakes made by a rogue employee, but by their efforts to make Santa Paula a better place to ride … and to live.

END

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An eye for an eye …

July 22, 2014 § 72 Comments

… makes the whole world blind.

Of course, if you saw the video put up by Santa Paula reserve police officer Laura Weintraub, you might well have gone blind with rage. Her “satire” included a diatribe against cyclists that openly condoned hitting them, and concluded with an image of one of the most horrible bike-car accidents ever photographed. She captioned the photo, “Like you never thought about it.”

The terrible swift sword of justice was quick. Santa Paula’s police chief, Steve McLean, immediately repudiated the video and placed Weintraub on administrative leave. She resigned the next day, but not before NBC News, the LA Times, Facebook, Twitter, and the Internet blew up. Outraged cyclists tracked down her phone number and threatened to kill her and dismember her body.

Whew. Ugh.

At 4:30 AM on Monday I woke up and checked the LA Bike Blog. Ted Rogers, who had been on top of the story from its inception, penned an insightful piece wondering if, perhaps, we’d squandered the “teachable moment” for the blood lust of watching Weintraub’s head roll. Wasn’t this, Rogers wondered, in actuality an opportunity to forge understanding?

I thought about that and emailed Chief McLean. Here’s what I said:

Hi, Chief McLean

I’m a lawyer and cycling advocate in LA, and have been working with Captain Devoren over at the Lost Hills Substation and with CHP regarding cycling safety issues on PCH.

I’ve followed the matter regarding Laura Weintraub closely, and appreciated her apology as well as your department’s swift response.

I think this matter has created a great opportunity for outreach and education. Although the video clearly offended many people, it has brought attention to the conflict between cyclists and motorists in Ventura County and the need for better relationships on all sides.

If you have some time today I’d be more than happy to call and talk about some ways that we can turn this into a win-win situation for your department, for cyclists, and for motorists in Santa Paula.

Best regards,
Seth Davidson

Later that morning I phoned Chief McLean, and was surprised when he took the call personally. I’ve dealt with law enforcement in many adversarial situations, and fully expected McLean to be defensive and skeptical regarding my motives. He was nothing of the kind. To the contrary, when I suggested a meeting with representatives from LA County Bicycle Coalition and Ventura County cycling advocates in order to explore ways that we could provide outreach and education opportunities to the police department, he said this: “I would very much like to have such a meeting, and sooner rather than later.”

After a phone call to Eric Bruins of LACBC, we were able to set up a meeting for this coming Friday. The idea is to bring cycling safety issues to the forefront and to combat some of the most common motorist prejudices as expressed by Weintraub in her video: that cyclists are a nuisance, that their lives don’t really “count,” that people who look different deserve persecution, and that cyclists don’t really belong on the roads.

My conversation with Chief McLean convinced me that the views of Weintraub are not the views of the department. It is regularly involved with pro-cyclist activities, not least of which included acting as a host city for the 2014 Amgen Tour of California. With regard to education regarding cyclist safety issues, the new 3-foot passing law that goes into effect in September, and some of the more technical aspects of cycling law such as CVC 21202, we now have a great opportunity to provide education and outreach to law enforcement in an area heavily frequented by cyclists.

Our biggest challenge in Southern California, which is the epicenter of American car culture, isn’t how to demonize our opponents, although I’ve been known to lob my fair share of Molotovs at aggressive cagers. Our real challenge is getting law enforcement and the community to recognize and accept our right to be on the road. The city of Santa Paula’s police department seems ready to meet that challenge head on, and for that they deserve our respect.

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