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San Francisco Police, Bicyclists Clash Over Fatal Collisions

| August 27, 2013
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Amelie Le Moullac was killed while riding her bicycle on Folsom Street. Photo from Voce Communications via Streetsblog SF

Amelie Le Moullac was killed while riding her bicycle on Folsom Street. Photo from Voce Communications via Streetsblog SF

Bicycle advocates are accusing the San Francisco Police Department of shoddy evidence-gathering in the case of a bicyclist who was killed by a big-rig driver on a SoMa street earlier this month. They say it might be part of a troubling pattern of police bias against bike riders.

On Aug. 14, Amelie Le Moullac, 24, was on her way to work, traveling east in the bike lane on Folsom Street, when she was struck and killed by a truck making a right turn onto Sixth Street. It was the third death of a bicyclist hit by a vehicle this year. All of the crashes have happened in or near SoMa and have involved trucks. None of the drivers has been cited or charged, according to bike advocates.

A week after the crash that killed Le Moullac, the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition (SFBC) held a memorial and safety event near the crash site. They gathered signatures for a petition to Mayor Ed Lee to make “some much needed and overdue changes” to SoMa streets.

At the event, San Francisco police Sgt. Richard Ernst shocked bike advocates and some of the victim’s co-workers by blaming Le Moullac for the collision, even though the investigation was ongoing.

Streetsblog San Francisco reports:

When Ernst arrived on the scene, he didn’t express sympathy for Le Moullac and other victims, or show support for safety improvements. Instead, he illegally parked his cruiser in the bike lane next to an empty parking space for up to 10 minutes, stating that he wanted to send a message to people on bicycles that the onus was on them to pass to the left of right-turning cars. He reportedly made no mention of widespread violations by drivers who turn across bike lanes instead of merging fully into them.

He said it was his “right” to be there.

According to SFBC Executive Director Leah Shahum, Ernst blamed all three victims who were killed by truck drivers in SoMa and the Mission this year, and refused to leave until she “understood that it was the bicyclist’s fault.”

Bike advocates are disturbed that many fatal collisions caused by drivers are written off as “tragic accidents.”

While San Francisco police wouldn’t comment directly on Ernst’s behavior, San Francisco Chronicle columnist Chuck Nevius talked to SFPD brass who privately “confirmed that not only was he acting on his own, they considered his actions an embarrassment.”

The same day of the event, a staffer from the SFBC decided to canvass the neighborhood for any surveillance video that might have captured the crash. He surveyed five businesses, and found an auto shop that had footage of the collision from a camera pointed directly at the intersection.

“What was so upsetting and distressing to find out is that the police had told us at the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition on three separate occasions they looked for video footage and that none could be found,” said Kristin Smith, communications director for the SFBC. “It was in a 15-minute quick check that our staffer was able to find this. It was really just basic police work.”

Smith said they found the footage in the nick of time because the auto shop had planned to erase it the next morning.

An attorney for Le Moullac’s family, Micha Star Liberty, said the video confirms her client did not cause the collision.

“What’s most important is that it reveals to me that she was a true victim with respect to this collision and did nothing wrong,” said Liberty.

To make matters worse, the police initially refused to give Liberty a copy of the police report.

“It’s crystal clear that the family of Amelie Le Moullac and me as their attorney should be given information contained in the report,” Liberty said.

It was only after media calls that police finally indicated they were going to release it, according to Nevius:

By Monday, the department had changed its tune, probably after the intervention of Police Chief Greg Suhr, who responded quickly to a text questioning the delay.

“Normally we do not release accident reports that result in death,” Suhr replied. “That said, we’re working on getting a copy of the report to the family.”

Liberty said she had been told to expect an e-mail copy of the report that afternoon.

Nevius described the SFPD’s response to the crash as “tone-deaf.”

Bike advocates say they’re disturbed that many collisions caused by drivers that end in the deaths of bicyclists and pedestrians are written off as “tragic accidents,” with no citations or charges except in drunken driving and hit-and-run cases. Some have accused the police of having a bias against bicyclists.

“We’ve heard from many of our members that they’ve had unfortunate interactions with the police,” said Smith. “What’s really distressing right now is that this might not be an isolated incident.”

A spokesman for the San Francisco Police Department, Albie Esparza, said he understands the “perception” and “concern” from bike advocates.

“I don’t know the information that was available to the investigators. We do certainly ask for the public’s help and assistance,” said Esparza. “If this piece of evidence was not retrieved, it is now. We have it in our possession and we’re grateful for the people who came forward and provided us with that information, which we’re going to take a look at and incorporate into our investigation.”

The police investigation will be forwarded to the San Francisco district attorney’s office, which will decide whether formal charges will be filed against the truck driver.

In the meantime, the SFBC says it is pushing the mayor and the Municipal Transportation Agency to install a green protected bikeway on Folsom Street.

“We’re really keeping our eye on the larger picture, which is the need to redesign our streets so that they’re safer for people biking and walking,” said Smith. “We’re really asking the city to make some changes so there is separation from these large fast-moving trucks and people biking and walking.”

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Category: Law and Justice, Transportation

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About the Author ()

Bryan Goebel is a reporter focused on transportation and housing issues. He was previously the editor of Streetsblog San Francisco and a producer and anchor at KCBS radio. He's a lifelong Californian and over his 20-year radio career has worked at stations in Barstow, Redding and Sacramento. Reach Bryan Goebel at bgoebel@KQED.org.
  • Michael Kelleher

    How is a green bike lane going to do anything but cause more right-hook accidents by discouraging drivers from properly merging into the bike lane to turn right? (per CVC 22100 which nearly nobody follows)

    • http://www.cafepress.com/thebikestop Roy Crisman

      I think you’re asking someone to prove a negative there.

      Though you should be able to show that statistically other dashed green lanes just before intersections do or don’t cause total mayhem.

    • Jacob Lynn

      It will

      1. cause drivers to be more aware of the presence of cyclists, and
      2. cause there to be more cyclists (thus making drivers yet more aware).

      Good? I suspect, after all, that the main benefit from the legal turning maneuver is the heightened awareness that the driver is moving through a bicycle area.

    • http://scorcher.org/ Jym Dyer

      The Eastern Neighborhoods proposal is for a protected two-way cycletrack raised to sidewalk level, with signals timed so that motor vehicles can’t turn until the bikes are clear. It is thought that this will attract greater numbers of bicyclists, creating a safer situation overall.

      Apologists for the truck driver have been dismissive of CVC 22100 on the grounds that trucks “need to” make wide turns from outside the bike lane.

      • Michael Kelleher

        So then separate signal phases for cars and bikes? No turn on red signs for cars? My take is that separating the bike lane doesn’t remove the fundamental conflict between cars and bikes at every intersection, and problems when drivers and cyclists inevitably sometimes ignore the signs/signals.

        I’d rather see an education and strict enforcement campaign, which would help at every intersection, not just particular roads with special bicycle treatments. Of course the education would have to start with the police departments since they clearly don’t know all the laws they’re supposed to enforce.

  • jwinstonsf

    On the other hand the police did an exemplary job investigating the case a few months ago where a bicyclist killed a pedestrian and even leaked a good portion of it to the press, including the suspect’s name and email address. I point this out not to excuse the actions of the killer cyclist but to illustrate the blatant bias on the part of the SFPD.

  • JB

    What’s worse, this is bald-faced lying by police that they sought video, which is technically “impeding” justice, which carries a criminal penalty. Charges need to be brought against the police by the Attorney General’s office.

  • JB

    PS, always the final answer is separation of cyclists and trucks and cars? Why isn’t it a problem in France, where HUGE 18-wheelers pass cyclists with no problem and plenty of space, and rarely if ever, do a right hook turn on them? THe U.S and state and local governments in general are ridiculous and wrong-headed because they can’t fathom that cyclists have an equal right to the road.

  • http://district5diary.blogspot.com/ Rob Anderson

    City Hall and the Bicycle Coalition are overselling riding bikes in SF. They seem to think that riding bikes is a cool, green transportation “mode” that’s a win-win deal for everyone, while downplaying the dangers, even for someone like Le Moullac, who “did nothing wrong.”