Cyclist’s Conflict with SFPD Could Take Nine Months or More to Resolve

Adrienne_Johnson_bike.jpgAdrienne Johnson riding beside the unmarked police car whose driver she says threatened her. Photo taken by Johnson’s husband, who was trailing behind her with her son.

As happens at some point to most people who ride a bike in San Francisco, Adrienne Johnson had a scary brush with an irate motorist, though her story took on much darker implications when she found out who that driver worked for.

The incident occurred a week and a half ago on Valencia Street, between
16th and 17th streets, as Johnson recounted in detail on her blog,
Change Your Life, Ride a Bike
. She had been riding her bike when a
motorist started to turn right on 17th Street, veering into her path.
When she told the motorist there were two cyclists trailing her (her son
and husband) she thought she heard him call her a bitch. She
gave him the finger and he raced up beside her, threatening to knock her
off her bike. When he drove ahead of her, Johnson saw red and blue
lights through his rear window (visible in the photo above) and realized
he was a plainclothes officer in an unmarked patrol car.

Johnson did the prudent thing and filed a complaint with police at Mission Station. She was thrilled with the reception she received from the desk officer and his supervisor, both of whom encouraged her to proceed with her formal complaint and provide as much evidence as possible.

"I went in expecting them to try to talk me down, but I got
the
sense as soon as I started describing the guy in the car, the officer
knew who I was talking about," said Johnson. "There was no doubt that
what I was saying was true."

That sense of satisfaction evaporated when Johnson heard that investigations at the Office of Citizens Complaints (OCC) take on average nine months to be completed, and longer if litigation is involved.

"If it were reversed, if I had threatened him or he had perceived that I had threatened him, he would have arrested me and I would have to have a lawyer right now," said Johnson. "Citizens are discriminated against by the fact that they are not in a uniform. It’s okay for us to wait."

Joyce Hicks, Executive Director of the OCC, said she takes all allegations of misconduct seriously, but investigations take time. "We need a preponderance of evidence to prove or disprove the complaints that the action happened," she said. "When we have one-on-one, it’s hard. If we have credible independent witnesses that assist us, that helps."

Though Johnson’s husband and son witnessed the incident, there were two other officers in the car with the driver, so their testimony could be significant and could make a determination more difficult.

"If you have interested parties, then it’s again difficult for us to determine whether or not the complaint occurred or didn’t occur, and whether it was proper or improper," said Hicks. If there were other witnesses to the incident, that would bolster the case.

Johnson said she didn’t stop to ask any strangers if they saw what happened.

Hicks assured Streetsblog that her office had "as much teeth as any police department Internal Affairs department has," because they can issue subpoenas, they have document protocol overseen by the Police Commission, and they have independent authority under the City Charter to take any case to the Police Commission.

SFPD spokesperson Lt. Lyn Tomioka, who said that she was prohibited by law from commenting on any particular personnel investigation, also noted that while she was happy the officers at Mission Station did as they were trained to do and were receptive to Johnson, one should not read anything into their behavior for evidence supporting the misconduct allegation.

"When misconduct comes to a supervisor’s attention, they shall and are required to take a statement," said Tomioka, adding that the department relied on the OCC to conduct preliminary investigations, particularly if an officer was on-duty when the complaint occurred. "We have OCC for a reason and that’s so we have an independent team to investigate allegations. These are allegations that have to be investigated."

Tomioka said Hicks and the OCC "have a good reputation for being very thorough in their investigations," but added that there isn’t a "way of fast tracking one investigation over another."

Johnson wasn’t mollified by the assurances made by Tomioka or Hicks. Though she didn’t intend to immediately hire a lawyer, she was upset that it could be a year before she had a resolution to the case.

"If this was just an issue that this guy was just jonesing to give me a
parking ticket that’s one thing, but these are serious allegations,"
said Johnson.

  • Careful rider

    Why would you give the finger to anyone in a car? Just asking for trouble they outweigh you!

  • It happens, don’t judge. I usually regret doing it myself, but if someone needlessly puts my life in danger I get really upset. Probably not the best course of action, but in the heat of the moment sometimes it is all you can do.

  • tea

    “Why would you give the finger to anyone in a car?”

    — I suppose for the same reason you would call someone riding lawfully through an intersection on a bicycle and concerned about her family’s safety, a bitch.

  • Nick

    Is this more of a case of hurt feelings or was the bicyclist in actual danger at any point? The original article was unclear whether the vehcile threatened her or not.

    The case of the girl riding along the Emarcadero with the car swerving at her and making death threats should warrant criminal sanctions. Does losing one’s temper (when proved) warrant the same level of seriousness? Should someone lose their career over this while others get away with “a stern warning”?

  • Nick

    Edit: meant to write “when provoked”

    Also I hope my comment was not insensitive to Adrienne or her family.

  • Jon Spangler

    Nick,

    A sworn officer is held to a higher standard of behavior for many very good reasons. We expect them to uphold public safety and to uphold–not break–the law.

    The officer in question does NOT get paid to abuse other road users or threaten citizens,
    no matter what. Unfortunately his behavior is all too “normal” among law enforcement officers, and it needs to stop.

    If his fellow officers fail to tell the truth about the incident during the OCC investigation I will not be surprised. There is usually a wall of silence and mutual protection in such cases, and these coverups do not serve the public good.

  • patrick

    The original article goes into detail.

    Basically threats of violence from the operator of a deadly weapon (AKA car), and IIRC threatening approaches with said weapon.

  • Nick- make no mistake, he swerved his car at me. He started calling me names for no other reason than my warning him he was about to hit me (he started to pull into me from outside the lane when I had the green light). He threatened me, clearly, to my face and with no ambiguity. I am not being overly sensitive- an on duty SF police officer threatened to hurt me while two of his partners sat by and watched.

    The rider on Market St. was hugely under served by the SFPD in that case, and it took public scrutiny to get anything done about it. That driver should have had his license suspended, but even public airing of the issue did not result in proper action being taken. Andrew Burket’s hit and run case was botched until light was shone on it by the press, despite the fact that his child was involved.

    We can talk in circles about what I should or should not do as a cyclist. Te fact remains that I was threatened by a cop. Even had I been under arrest, he has no right to threaten me with harm.

    Can anyone here say that they want this cop to be the one they have to deal with on the street?

  • Anonymous

    No offense, but that isn’t a cop. Look at the license plate. Sometimes there’s people who buy a Crown Vic to impersonate the police.

  • EL

    I’m curious Adrienne. Your husband and your son are riding behind you. Is your son on the same bike as your husband or on a separate bike? I ask because it looks like your husband is busy snapping photos while the bike is in motion – not exactly the safest thing to do, especially if your son is on the bike as well, and next to a construction zone no less.

  • My son is 15. We took his training wheels off a while ago : )

  • Alex

    Way to deescalate the situation and set a good example for your son, Adrienne! Are you sure you’re not related to the brothers Dhaliwal?

  • Wow Alex, really?

  • EL

    Congrats on your son turning 15. Still not setting a good example though (both the finger and riding with one hand next to a construction zone while taking pictures).

  • TK

    Try having a child, then talk to us about what happens when someone threatens you and yours when you’re as vulnerable as you are on a bike alongside cars. Jeez, what a bunch of jerks commenting here.

  • TK, I was just going to say how this comment thread proves how easy it is to judge from on high when you are sitting behind a keyboard.

    On top of it, she admitted that she probably didn’t take the best course of action. I’m assuming here, but I’d venture a guess she talked to her son after and told him the same thing.

    Why the outrage at her? A cop (and it is a cop car, you can see the lights) threatened her life.

  • BikerHiker

    Nice!!! Mom flips off Cops… Dad rides with one hand while taking pictures and the son needs new contacts but the parents allow him to ride anyway…unbelievable! was anyone wearing a helmet? This woman has an agenda look at her blogs what a bunch of poop!

  • #17, #18, & #19 – is this the in depth commentary we are going to be blessed with by visitors from SFGate? Regardless if she was wearing a helmet (which isn’t a law) or if her husband snapped a picture while riding (you have a split second to capture a picture of the person harassing your spouse) shouldn’t negate the fact that she was verbally harassed and physically threatened. If the cop in question is suppose to garner blind unwavering devotion, then said cop should respect the populace in which he/she is given the opportunity to protect and serve.

  • Mike- Don’t worry about it. People have opinions about all kinds of things. Like you, I am very surprised at the number of people who are able to completely ignore the actual issue and project something else onto it entirely. There is no way to combat it and yes, this is what you can see over at the SFGate site, if not worse and more insulting.

    I thank you for your gallant defense of my honor. It is very kind and much appreciated. The rest of it… meh.

  • icarus12

    Nobody comes out smelling like a rose after a traffic altercation. Just yesterday I yelled (no curses, just mad) at a cab driver for purposely not allowing me the right of way after I had waited at the stop sign for cars to take theirs. Right afterwards I apologized to two women who had to hear that racket/anger. They said they didn’t mind and were sympathetic. Still, I felt like a raging, over-the-top idiot. It reminded me that most of the time we’d all be better off if we controlled ourselves even when seriously provoked (as Adrienne was).

  • Paul S

    What SF Gate readers probably don’t understand is that in most near-miss or collision situations, the ‘fight or flight’ response is triggered in the person riding a bike. This is a normal and natural response to perceiving that one’s life is threatened. Therefore the person’s normal response in such a situation will be extreme.

    As for getting photos on the fly – fast work and good job. If more endangered people on bikes had the thought and reaction time to do that, more malicious/inattentive people driving cars would be brought to book for their actions.

    Finally, note the choice of language. We’re all people, whether it be driving cars or riding bikes, walking, etc. We’re not even different tribes. Many of us drive cars and ride bicycles. We don’t become different people behind he wheel of a car or when on a bike.

  • JC

    the officer responsible for the act should face consequences. the story according to AJ is true because cops too often abuse their authority against citizens and the public. in san francisco, i have seen very few good cops, but many cops who disrespect the people they serve.

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