By Leslie Albrecht
UPPER WEST SIDE — The head of the Central Park NYPD Precinct said at a recent meeting that his officers are backing off a "zero-tolerance" ticketing blitz that sparked an uproar among New York cyclists, according to several of those present at the meeting.
Central Park Precinct Commander Captain Philip Wishnia told a host of assembled cyclists, elected officials and other stakeholders that his precinct would halt the crackdown that slapped bikers with tickets, including $270 fines for running red lights even when no one else was in the intersection, those present said.
"(Wishnia) said they were going to back off from their zero tolerance policy, and that they would be exercising discretion," said Ken Coughlin, a Community Board 7 member who was at the April 26 closed-door meeting at the Charles A. Dana Discovery Center in Central Park, near 110th Street.
Coughlin also said Wishnia told those assembled that officers would focus less on bicyclists running red lights when no one is present in the roadway, and focus more on ticketing cyclists who don't yield to pedestrians who have the right of way at crosswalks.
"The outcome (of the meeting) was a consensus view that the police should not ticket bicyclists riding through red lights unless there was a pedestrian in the crosswalk," said Upper East Side City Councilman Dan Garodnick, who co-hosted the meeting with his Upper West Side counterpart City Councilwoman Gale Brewer.
Calls to Wishnia at the Central Park Precinct were referred to the NYPD's Deputy Commissioner of Public Information. DCPI did not respond to a request for comment.
Wishnia was careful not to give the impression that officers are simply dropping enforcement of red light running, Coughlin said. "That's why he used the word 'discretion,'" Coughlin said.
"The way it was characterized by Wishnia is that they're refocusing the ticketing," said Tila Duhaime, a Community Board 7 member who was at the meeting. "They're going to continue to ticket cyclists, but their focus is going to be on ticketing cyclists who are failing to yield to pedestrians who have the light."
Police have said the crackdown, which started this past winter, was meant to curb reckless cyclists who were involved in an increasing number of accidents in the park. The Central Park Precinct saw 62 bike-related injuries in 2008; 122 in 2009; and 127 in 2010, Wishnia told the Wall Street Journal in February.
But cyclists felt singled out by police for relatively minor violations such as running a red light at an empty intersection early in the morning. Cyclists circulated petitions, started a Facebook protest and packed a Central Park Precinct community council meeting to give police an earful about the new policy.
Meanwhile, spooked cyclists steered clear of Central Park, and nearby bike shops said the ticketing blitz hurt their sales.
In late March, police seemed to relent when they apologized for using radar guns to snare speeding cyclists during the park's early morning car-free hours.
Wishnia said at previous public meetings that his officers had no choice but to enforce traffic laws, but the April 26 meeting marked a retreat from that hardline stance, Duhaime said.
"Wishnia acknowledged that his officers have some discretion in deciding when to enforce and not enforce," Duhaime said. "That was a change in tune from the precinct meeting in March when he said, 'We can't pick and choose, we have to enforce the law,'" Duhaime said.
Duhaime, a member of advocacy group Upper West Side Streets Renaissance, said cyclists have already noticed a difference in the park.
"Anecdotally, people have noticed it's eased up," Duhaime said.
She added that the apparent change in NYPD policy comes with a level of responsibility by bikers to behave appropriately.
"If we want pedestrians and cyclists and joggers to share these areas, they need to respect each other, and that includes yielding when pedestrians have the right of way. I think that's something that cyclists are coming around to understanding."