In the video, the cyclist gets thrown from his bike, sails through the air, and hits the ground hard.
Heins Rodriguez, a 26-year-old from Queens, New York, was riding his bike in the Corona neighborhood on August 13, 2015. Based on surveillance footage from the area, we know how the ride ended: A pair of police officers following Rodriguez in an unmarked car veered toward him, running him off the road and possibly striking him. Rodriguez crashed on the sidewalk, landing on his side.
Both officers then left their car, approached Rodriguez after he got to his feet, and cuffed his hands behind his back. They charged him with “resisting arrest.”
Why did they target Rodriguez in the first place? That’s not entirely clear. According to the Daily News, the NYPD said officers Zheng Zuopeng and Alan Chen were attempting to pull him over for biking the wrong way down a one-way street. However, the security footage shows Rodriguez biking with traffic when the officers drove into his path.
Police also said they found 12 bags of marijuana on Rodriguez after they stopped him. However, Rodriguez never faced any changes over the weed and was only charged with resisting arrest. Per the Daily News, the officers reported that he flailed around and refused to be handcuffed. Yet the footage shows him peacefully submitting to the cuffs. The charge was later dropped.
It’s not clear whether the officers actually hit Rodriguez with their car or just pulled close enough to run him off the bike. Either way, it was a potentially dangerous maneuver for what they allege was only minor traffic violation.
In a 2016 lawsuit filed in federal court, Rodriguez said he asked the officers to go to the hospital after the arrest, but that they “ignored his plea and his obvious need for medical treatment” and took him instead to the local precinct house. Once he was finally taken to a hospital, Rodriguez said he was diagnosed with bulging discs, a painful spinal condition that has required ongoing physical therapy and still affects him to this day.
Both Rodriguez and his lawyer declined to comment. But given the details of his arrest and injuries, could the officers have found a safer way to stop a cyclist on city streets?
“What prohibits [the officers] from pulling 25 feet ahead of [Rodriguez], pulling over, and signaling for him to stop?” asked Daniel Flanzig, a New York attorney who once represented a woman who was thrown from her bike by an NYPD officer for running a red light. According to Flanzig, the department needs a better strategy for stopping cyclists. He noted that police wouldn’t run drivers off the road unless they were a danger to themselves or others.
The NYPD did not respond to requests for comment on whether the traffic stop followed any existing protocol. Late last year, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, a former NYPD captain, called for a “culture shift” among officers over how they view cyclists. It’s a view endorsed by Paul Steely White, executive director of the safe-streets advocacy group Transportation Alternatives.
“[Mayor Bill de Blasio] should heed Borough President Adams’ call for the NYPD to undergo a radical reeducation when it comes to how it deals with bicyclists and pedestrians,” Steely White said. “This is not an isolated incident. We’ve seen this kind of reckless behavior and targeting of cyclists and pedestrians all too often.”
Steely White tied the Rodriguez case to a longer pattern of the NYPD mistreating cyclists, including high-profile incidents like officer Patrick Pogan throwing a cyclist off his bike during a 2008 Critical Mass ride and off-duty sergeant Bradley Beamer pulling a gun on teenage cyclists outside a strip club in 2017. Earlier this year, former NYPD officer and current New York State Senator Marty Golden was caught driving in a bike lane and menacing a Brooklyn cyclist while waving a parking placard around and claiming to be a police officer.
Bob Gangi, executive director of the Police Reform Organizing Project, a police accountability group, agreed with Flanzig’s assessment. Gangi called the arrest “an all-too-common kind of incident between the NYPD and New Yorkers.” He also told Bicycling that resisting arrest is the kind of charge sometimes used “to cover up when [officers] physically abuse a person. If they get physically forceful with a person in a way they didn’t need to, [police] will claim the person was resisting arrest.”
In a similar case last summer, Brooklyn cyclist Bert Spaan was charged with disorderly conduct after he tapped on a police cruiser window to tell the officer that he had nearly driven into him. Spaan later sued the NYPD after the charges were thrown out. “I’d like to think the case was thrown out totally on merit,” Spaan’s attorney said at the time.
The New York City Law Department declined to comment on a case still in litigation, but the city did deny all of Rodriguez’s charges in a filing with the Eastern District. Still, no reason was given for why Rodriguez was pulled over. The issue of his alleged marijuana possession—which Steely White said shouldn’t be given much credence, since possession of 25 grams of weed or less is decriminalized in New York—also wasn’t mentioned.
No matter how the lawsuit ends, the incident is more proof to police critics that the department needs to change. “The mayor must hold the NYPD accountable, because right now they’re a force unto themselves,” Steely White said.