Close Encounters of the Amsterdam Police Kind

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My occasional encounters with police have generally been rather strange. I suppose it must be very strange to have a job that puts you in constant contact with some of the worst things happening in the city at any given moment. Do cops just lump the whole world into criminals and victims, and trust nobody in the process?

I’m musing about cops because I had a strange experience while cycling through the city Sunday afternoon. I was waiting with a couple other cyclists and couple cars for a light to change at a wide intersection. The pedestrian signals in the direction I was headed turned to “walk” and the coast was very obviously clear. I rolled through the intersection, thinking I’d already behaved “better” than a cyclist would typically do in such a situation here. Everybody knows that cyclists in Amsterdam generally proceed with caution but ignore traffic signals. One waits only when it’s either unsafe or the police are watching. Like it or not, that’s the practice.

I suppose it would have been wise to have first looked around before proceeding to see who was watching. Thirty seconds after crossing the intersection without incident or inconvenience a police car pulls up to my left, window rolled down. The two agents in the car look at me as if I have “Cops are Dicks” written in bold letters across my back and motion for me to stop and talk. They don’t get out of their car nor do they want to see my ID or anything official. The driver, obviously angry, leans over and asks some pointed, rhetorical question to the tune of “what the heck was that, asshole?!”. The female agent in the passenger’s seat is giving me that “Yeah, duhhhh!” look… though I was thinking approximately the same in reverse.

I’m no genius but I can put two and two together; It’s pretty obvious he’s referring to my riding through a red light a few meters back. A quick assessment of the situation suggests that admitting guilt and feigning embarrassment is my best approach. But the cop continues before I’ve had a chance to test my acting skills: “How do you think it makes us feel when you ride through red and everybody giggles and looks to see what we’ll do? You show no respect!” They don’t seem to have a problem with a cyclist breaking the law. The problem is that I did it in front of a police car. Oh, now how do I react? I can’t exactly say “Sorry officer, had I seen that you were there I wouldn’t have continued.” Likewise, admitting guilt to jumping a red light is a pointless since he’s already noted that it’s accepted.

A couple moments later they still hadn’t stepped out of their car so I figured they’d no intention of giving me a ticket or fine unless I did something stupid. I played it safe, sticking to “Yes, that was dumb of me.” and “I see your point… Understood.” Then they drove away, apparently satisfied that they’d made their point.

Lesson learned: Only run red lights in Amsterdam when the police can conveniently ignore it.

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15 Responses to “Close Encounters of the Amsterdam Police Kind”

  1. John . Dublin Ireland Says:

    They do have to save face you know what if some Official from the Town Hall was also stopped at the Lights and Reported them for not doing anything. Then all the Cops in Amsterdam would have to start Ticketing the Cyclists for going through the Lights.

    I was stopped at a T Junction with the Lights on Red in Dublin one Day and a Car was beside me. It took ages for the Lights to change and there was nothing in the far off Distance for up to a Kilometre and a Half. I just got fed up waiting and waiting and took off to the right,then I heard a loud Siren behind . I pulled in and said to myself now what but then I noticed they had pulled in a Car and just ignored me so I slowly went on my way unhurriedly muttering to myself some choice words.

    They do sometimes stop Cyclists for running Red Lights.but I would only do it if it was safe on a straight Road with no Junctions and only a Pedestrian Light with no Pedestrians in sight. I see a lot of Cyclists take desperate Risks blatently running through Lights with Traffic about I would never do that. I think the Law should be changed in some cases for slow moving Vehicles like Bicycles when there is obviousely nothing on the Road.

  2. kdt Says:

    Interesting encounter. In some respects, the police were acting like people, not cops. As you point out, they were less concerned with the law that was broken than by how it reflected on them personally.

    So one way you could look at this is as a very human interaction. “Look, we all know you’re going to run through red lights. We do it ourselves when we’re not on duty. So just give us a little respect, and don’t do it when we’re right there, please. Have a nice day.”

  3. henry Says:

    kdt, True though in addition to acting like people not cops, they were also acting like cops as I generally experience them.

  4. Val Says:

    Yes, indeed, cops as I have always experienced them mainly want you to Respect Their Authority. No matter what the situation, if you can convey that, they will generally not harrass you too much. It is difficult for me sometimes, as they are usually pulling me over because they do not like my hat (favorite actual cop quote: “Did you wake up this morning and decide to ignore the law and wear a cowboy hat!?”) or they think that I am riding too slowly (“You need to keep up with the traffic, or I will have to cite you for Impeding Traffic”). Once I was even threatened with a citation for “Violating the Crosswalk” (“Honest officer, it was consensual – I was even going to call in the morning!”). I am quite proud of my poker face and tongue biting abilities, and so far have only garnered angry lectures, sans citations. Tickle their bellies, and they won’t bite your arm off.

  5. Todd Edelman Says:

    Stupid laws are the scourge of humankind (and I live in Germany, for now). But I agree that feigning respect for authority combined with doing something unexpected works best to get oneself out of sticky situations:

    In San Francisco many years ago I went through a red in full view of some coppers going the opposite direction. One shouted out “you think you’re so cool.” to which I replied “No, I am not cool. And I am sorry.” They went on their way (insert donut joke).

    Minor individual laws regarding cycling add up – I think – to major differences in how people ride. Even if laws are not enforced, fear keeps people in line.

    One major minor law is about sitting on a rear rack of a bike. This is legal in the Netherlands, but illegal in Denmark and Germany. If people could share some regulations from their own country it would be much appreciated, for things like sitting on a rack, using a mobile, and so on (But not about bike helmets, lighting etc.).

  6. Anthony King Says:

    In my neighborhood the cops don’t seem to mind if you run a red light in their presence as long as you do it safely. I don’t know most of their names but I know almost all their faces, so the familiarity helps as well. I stop/slow, make sure the way is clear, smile and/or wave at the cop and proceed through the intersection if clear. I’ve never had any response except for a return smile and/or wave. Riding a opa-like bike and going slowly helps, I believe, as well as having a child or two with me most of the time. It’s a common-sense refreshing adherence to the spirit–rather than the letter–of the law by the police force.

  7. Amsterdamize Says:

    I can attest to the fact that one of Amsterdam’s ‘unwritten rules’ is that you can ignore full stops or lights, you assess the situation (also based on the ped light Henry mentions) and ride safely across. I call it 100% sound anticipation.
    Not to bitch and moan, but the only people I see taking huge risks are fixie riders. Just last Saturday two of them forced at least 3 streams of traffic to make emergency stops at a junction, just because they wanted to keep pedaling instead of doing a ‘track stand’. One was forced to go against traffic for 20 meters, go through a group of pedestrians on the zebra crossing to finally turn around and turn right to continue. Even by Amsterdam standards that’s ridiculous.

    Police have been reluctant to ticket for running red lights for many decades. When I first moved to Amsterdam (20 yrs ago), I was happily surprised that cops weren’t interested in me riding downtown, drunk, without lights and any real sense of direction. “Yeah, you guys have better things to do.”

    That has changed the last 10 years or so. More ped-only areas (good), but at the same time police work shifted more and more towards ‘petty’ enforcement. Not so long ago I was riding past the Tropenmuseum at dusk, none of the street lights were yet on, my light was broken, nothing wrong with that. Tell that to the two (junior & senior) officers who were hiding behind some bushes 10 meters away and came running for me and triumphantly booked me for riding without a light. “Really? You are pulling that one on me? Like that? Pathetic.” Just an indicator of what was yet to come. And the ‘what’ contains periodical ‘funnel’ police actions for a couple of hours. Call me a cynic, but police work has slid down to a simple cost-benefit analysis, without real concern for more grave offenses. But I digress.

    The police will rarely ticket you randomly.
    Well, yes, certainly not when in a car, motorbike cops are the odd balls out. The one ‘chip’ I talked to just 2 weeks ago admitted it’s ‘mopping with the tab open’ & ‘people will go around obstacles anyway they can and if the city doesn’t take those obstacles away, well then…).

    Anyway, Henry, remember that police work is not be envied and that we get the police we deserve; years of cost-cutting and recruiting problems have given us a poorly educated and inefficiently run police force, which is trying to address problems in a ‘business-wise’ manner, not based on merits. Combine that with the generally accepted notion of Amsterdammers saying ‘live and let live’ and you get what you encountered.

    Not pretty, not very intelligent, very lazy and not to waste your argumentation on.

    One final tidbit and killing off part of what made this city and country different; last week the bill got passed that makes it illegal to insult a police officer. I haven’t looked into it yet, but I now wonder how far that goes: will I still be able to say ‘oelewapper’ or ‘ouwe zeiksnor’ or ‘natte wind’ or something simple like ‘je lult uit je nek, man’, or ‘ben je blind ofzo?’.

    Those were the days, my friend. :)

  8. henry Says:

    Amsterdamize,
    Thanks for the added info. I agree that most enforcement of bike related infractions in Amsterdam are “official crackdowns” such as the twice yearly funnel actions against cyclists without lights. That said I didn’t see any of these this winter, perhaps because with the new, looser law allowing lights on your clothing or bags there are very few unlit cyclists. It just isn’t economically viable to go after the handful of people too cheap to buy €5 LED’s at the Hema.

    I’ve seen a very different picture in smaller towns though. One sunny lunchtime in Amersfoort I watched ini disbelief as a cop stood at the end of a tunnel under the railroad tracks ticketing every cyclist who emerged without fully functional lights and bell. It was not dark in the tunnel.

  9. Toby Says:

    I have actually been ticketed in exactly the situation you describe.

    On Van Baerlestraat crossing Koninginnenweg _ in other words, heading toward Vondelpark from Museumplein. It’s a known “trap” but I wasn’t paying attention.

    Playing submissive is definitely always the right way to go with cops the world but I was so grumpy I couldn’t put on a sheepish smile.

    In other news, some politicians (okay the PVV) are talking about scrapping ticket quotas for cops, which would be a step in the right direction as far as I’m concerned.

    “Let them catch criminals” has a certain populist appeal.

  10. John . Dublin Ireland Says:

    In Dublin a lot of Cyclists do not always have Lights and the Police rarely stop them and a lot do not have any Bells on their Bikes. But the Law is changed now and any New Bikes that are Sold have to have Bells but is not enforced yet.

    Every so often recently now they have spot Checks on Cyclists for Lights and they will Ticket you. But this is very Rare maybe once or twice a Year. A lot of Cyclists just ignore the Lights and take Desperate Chances and they mostly get away with it even if the Police are on scene.

    They have changed the Law on Blinkies and are allowing them Officially. A lot of Cyclists have been using Blinking Lights although it was not Legal and the Police never bothered anyone about it,so the Law was changed to allow them Legally.

    There is a lot of complaints about Cyclists having no Lights and Running Reds and so they have Crackdowns every so often.

  11. Todd Edelman Says:

    I try really hard to be liberal about lights but as a pedestrian with old dogs it feels rather dangerous when cyclists are not equipped with front lights in mixed bike-ped areas, or when bike and bike infrastructure are right next to each other. And similarly as a cyclist at crossroads or tight bi-directional spaces. In Berlin we have a close call almost every night.

    On the other hand rear lights are pretty irrelevant to pedestrians or other cyclists, and probably put the cyclist at the most risk vs. a car.

    So I think that having front lights should be a priority.

    The “stick” from a cop for not having lights is pretty stupid if it takes away money which could have been used for lights. I don’t know what police in the Netherlands or other parts of the EU do when a car has a busted light, etc., but in the USA I think many drivers get “fix it tickets” and then they have to show proof that they got the light etc. fixed in order to not pay a fine.

    Of course because of the relatively minor amount of real injury caused by front light-less cyclists, issuing a cyclist a ticket and the following steps is a huge administrative cost and time waster for the authorities.

    (Fear is also a type of injury and is what has stopped a lot of cycling (fear of cars). Some not well-sighted people would seem to have a big problem with silent and dark bikes.)

    Handing out free blinkies would probably cost less, but this makes no sense if a bike has repairable generator lights. Also any blinkies they gave out would probably have disposable batteries, also not good. Better than blinkies would be Reelights (no batteries) but they are not cheap. Perhaps blinkies COULD be given out with rechargeable batteries and a charger-adaptor for the new mandatory universal mobile phone chargers.

    Shops sell old bikes without working lights to adults. This seems crazy as all get ridden at night.

    Lots of bike orgs. give out cheap lights and distribute countless leaflets, many bike shops (here in Germany) do free light inspections, etc, in particular in the autumn when the sun starts to go down early. But still lots of cyclists go without front lights. But, again, using the police to enforce this makes no sense.

    Many bike shops have free-to-use air pumps, using a compressor. This is not quite free to operate, but of course it is a nice gesture which keeps people coming to the shops that do it.

    So… I think the only solution is free lighting. Not, e.g. one set of free lights per year/per bike but just free lighting! Front… and rear if only because it is normal. Any cyclist can go to any shop any time and get their lights fixed or Reelights or that rechargeable blinkie combo I mention, specific technology depending on local or national laws. Perhaps just a small number of products which fulfill regulations, whereas lights for, e.g. extended mountain bike riding at night etc (with expensive accus) would not get covered, nor would new batteries for these units.

    Of course the shops should not pay for it, so perhaps the best thing would be some kind of bulk purchasing of lights to keep costs down, and every shop which installs them deducts the cost of doing this from their taxes.

    How to abuse this system? If the system is implemented at a national level, I suppose people who get free detachable lights could take them to the next country over and sell them, but this would not be worth it with blinkies. Reelights and others are more pricey, so perhaps the free lights programme should be limited exclusively to less expensive generator-powered lights, as they stay with the bike. The only rule might be that a bike has to be fully functional to get lights installed (or people might bring in crap bikes just so that they can get new lights, take them off to sell, etc. Seems like a major hassle.)

    OK. Air, light…. what’s next?

  12. henry Says:

    Todd,
    Bicycle headlights are mostly so others can see you coming.

    Taillights have many times been demonstrated to be critical for overtaking vehicles to see you, regardless of the vehicle you’re in/on.

    Sometimes they do the “fix-it” ticket thing here with lights, sometimes not.

    If the Dutch knew that they could get free blinky lights if they got caught riding without lights they’d see it as a lottery and ALL ride without lights.

    Bike shops in the Netherlands do not sell old city bikes without lights. That’s illegal.

    With this line of thinking we’ll soon be declaring that every man, woman and child has a born right to decent health care. This is just crazy talk!

  13. Todd Edelman Says:

    Hi, yes re: purpose of front lights. The point about tail lights is that they have little to do with pedestrians and mostly threaten the cyclist, so it is their choice. Sure, an overtaking cyclist gets helped if the one in front has a tail light. I was just trying to point out a distinction. In my proposal, fix it is irrelevant, as are blinkies. Thanks for info about used bikes.

    So my question is how would this work in your bike shops. People come in and need anything from EUR 5 repair to EUR 30? new generator light set up (they are bought in bulk), and you deduct it from your taxes.

    To clarify, in this programme the police or anyone else completely stops any inspections etc of bike lights. If we can send a fully-insured astronaut to the moon, etc.

  14. henry Says:

    Todd,
    How do you see taillights as threatening cyclists? That sounds like a rather bizarre conclusion.

    I’m assuming you’re just pulling my chain about all this tax-based, government-run bike lighting stuff. Even the poorest folks can afford to maintain simple lights on or for their bikes and it’s just one’s responsibility to do so (both for oneself and fellow road/path users). Why make such a simple thing more complicated?

  15. Todd Edelman Says:

    Hi again,

    Did I say that about tail lights? If so, I was misunderstood.

    I am not precisely sure of the conditions in Amsterdam… and perhaps I was talking about Berlin, where lots of people are simply not buying lights! Changing this with police is nonsense. Bikeshops add a new code to their system and tell their accountant. All these people coming in for free basic lights get other stuff.

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