Last November, Real Change created a video that showed Seattle police officers mocking a victim of a hit-and-run collision in SODO. Then, David Kroman of Crosscut picked up the story, giving it quick traction against the county’s bicycle-helmet law:
John (whose name has been changed for privacy) was riding his bicycle without a helmet when he was struck by a vehicle in the parking lot of Grocery Outlet. When officers responded to the scene, John was still lying on the concrete, complaining of pain. He had sustained multiple injuries to his hip, ribs and neck. The officers issued him a citation for not wearing a helmet.
In 1993, King County passed a law making it illegal to ride a bike on public property without a helmet. The law was adopted by Seattle in 2003. Kroman reported that enforcement has been minimal, yet his analysis of Seattle Municipal Court data found that these laws disproportionately affect Black and Indigenous people, people of color and homeless people: In 2019, at least 60% of helmet-related citations in Seattle went to people struggling with homelessness.
Helmet laws are just one example of regulations that criminalize homelessness in the United States. In Hawaii, it is illegal to sit or lie down on public sidewalks. Many Texas cities have banned camping, and in 2017, seven people were arrested for distributing food to homeless people in Tampa, Florida.
Helmet laws have become a priority for Real Change organizers Tiffani McCoy and Jacob Schear, who are pushing to repeal this unfair local criminalization. “It’s so clear that (these laws) are used selectively to criminalize poor people and further trap them in cycles of debt and incarceration,” Schear said. “It’s because of laws like this that we’re in a homelessness crisis.”
Advocates say that while King County’s helmet laws were not created to target unhoused people, this population will continue to be unfairly discriminated against under them. In the wake of Real Change Advocacy sharing news of what John endured, on Dec. 16, Crosscut showed that Seattle police use the helmet law as a means to stop people under investigation for other crimes. Crosscut also reported in February that an unlawful weapons charge against a homeless man was dropped in 2019 because officers leaned on the helmet law to stop him unconstitutionally.
“Unfortunately, the intent of a policy does not necessarily always align with the outcome,” King County Councilmember Jeanne Kohl-Welles said. On Feb. 18, Kohl-Welles proposed that the Board of Health reexamine current bike helmet laws with their response to racism as a public health crisis.
“While I have supported the helmet law, I believe that if this policy is causing disproportionate harm on already marginalized communities, including individuals experiencing homelessness, we absolutely need to explore how to facilitate safe biking practices without criminalization,” Kohl-Welles said.
“We believe in helmets and helmet safety, but this way of incentivizing helmet use isn’t working because we’ve seen that it’s racist and criminalizes homelessness,” Schear said. “It’s basically a tool that the police use to further marginalize vulnerable communities.”
Similar concerns about racism and discrimination have prompted other Washington lawmakers to reconsider their biking regulations. Tacoma repealed its helmet law last year after a federal court ordered the city to pay $500,000 to a teenager who was thrown to the ground and tased for biking without a helmet.
“When you have a law where lots of people are breaking the law, that gives the police a ton of discretion,” said Tom Fucoloro, editor of the Seattle Bike Blog, pointing out that many people are never stopped for not wearing a helmet.
Bike-sharing services, like Lime and Jump, have been lawfully allowed to operate without providing helmets, and very few people wear one while using them. John has noticed the discrepancies. “Those tourists are riding all over on the streets and everything else without (helmets), and you don’t ever stop them.”
While writing John’s ticket, one of the SPD officers asks why he isn’t wearing a “two-dollar helmet,” implying that John didn’t have one due to lack of regard for the law rather than lack of funds. Though, Schear pointed out, helmets are expensive, and many low-income and unhoused people cannot afford them. Real Change is working to start a dialogue about helmet inaccessibility as part of a larger conversation about Seattle poverty.
Schear would ultimately like to see legislation like Seattle City Councilmember Lisa Herbold’s “poverty defense” proposal passed. If this proposal is formulated, introduced for a council vote and passed, the bill would expand the legal defenses people can rely on against misdemeanor crimes tied to essential needs, such as shoplifting food, to account for economic circumstances. In some cases, the court could link the defendant with social services rather than incarcerating them.
The Seattle Reentry Workgroup says that policies like this will be an important step for the city to “move away from relying on the criminal legal system to address poverty and health inequities and instead develop responses that do not burden individuals with a criminal history or the trauma of incarceration.”
While that broader effort is on hold for the council, Schear and the Real Change organizing team remain hard at work fighting the helmet law by connecting with cyclist groups from around King County and sharing stories of vendors who have firsthand, lived experience with the law and its repercussions.
Due to Kroman’s reporting, Real Change Advocacy’s work and a widespread response to John’s story, the Seattle inspector general has opened an investigation into the enforcement of the law, and the King County Board of Public Health voted Feb. 18 to add a review of the law to their work plan. The review is expected several months from now.
One big, vivid response is from activist Reed Olsen, who created the comic strip above.
To learn more or get involved, please email Jacob at [email protected].
Read more of the Mar. 10-16, 2021 issue.