Donnie Landsman has grown accustomed to those fleeting looks of disapproval and trepidation.
When drivers pull up alongside his motorcycle on the highway, they grip their steering wheels a little tighter and tell their kids to look away. Landsman said he’s been denied service at restaurants for wearing a bandanna and a leather vest.
But Landsman, better known in the riding community as “Mr. Breeze,” isn’t in a gang. The father of three has been riding motorcycles for about 40 years, and said he has yet to encounter anyone who belongs to one. As the man who heads up legislative efforts for the Washington chapter of ABATE (American Bikers for Awareness, Training, and Education), a motorcyclist advocacy group, Landsman works to fight negative assumptions about riders.
Such stereotypes are particularly grating when they come from law enforcement officers, who Landsman and others say target bikers for selective enforcement and even harassment. In a word: profiling.
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“Motorcyclists aren’t looking for special rights,” Landsman said. “We want the same rights that are afforded to every other section of the population as American citizens and as citizens of Washington state. We aren’t being given that.”
The group found a champion in Rep. Steve Kirby, D-Tacoma, who introduced a bill that would force local law enforcement agencies to adopt a written policy designed to condemn and prevent the profiling of motorcyclists and to institute training to address the issue.
But police officials say such a measure would be unnecessary.
Capt. Jason Berry of the Washington State Patrol says that there are already policies in place that prohibit profiling of any kind. And anyone who wants to can call in or go online to report any misconduct.
“We do not profile any group according to what they ride or drive,” Berry said. “We stop for violations of the law and take the appropriate enforcement actions as a result.”
MONITORED BY POLICE
Biker advocates point to an incident last year as evidence that they are being singled out.
Last January, dozens of motorcyclists traveled to Olympia for an event called Black Thursday, an annual motorcycle rights lobbying day. They parked their motorcycles near the governor’s mansion, as directed by parking personnel.
In the meantime, the Washington State Patrol released a statement to the media announcing the motorcyclists’ arrival. Part of that statement read: “Approximately 25 Bandito organized motorcycle gang members have arrived on campus for the ABATE ‘Black Thursday’ event. They are showing their gang colors; however, we do not expect any trouble. WSP troopers will be closely monitoring this group.”
While the riders were inside the Capitol attempting to find sponsorship for a bill that would stop motorcycle profiling, the Washington State Patrol arrived and began taking down license plate numbers.
None of the motorcyclists would have ever known about the incident were it not for some video footage that was captured as the officers were working. Some officers are even shown ducking through bushes to record the information.
“That’s gang activity, to go see our legislators?” Landsman said. “I guess the idea is that if bikers come in, we’re shutting the door and beating them (legislators) up.”
ABATE leaders cite several other recent episodes of what they see as profiling. And they say they have evidence to show that law enforcement officials are not only aware of motorcycle profiling, but that they had as recently as eight years ago been circulating a training pamphlet that encouraged it.
In December 2002, a permanent injunction was issued by Thurston County Superior Court against the state and the Washington State Patrol from using a document called “Biker’s Basic – 101” as an outline for training troopers and other officers.
'BIKERS ARE DANGEROUS'
A copy provided by ABATE’s attorney outlines the three main motorcycle equipment violations in Washington state (helmet, noise and handlebar height); includes protocol for how to pull bikers over; directs troopers to legally impound the motorcycle and “book” the biker if possible; and tells them to talk to riders about their patches, to take pictures of their badges and bikes, and to be professional.
The first line reads: “Bikers are dangerous.”
“Now if that isn’t a statement of profiling, I don’t know what is,” Landsman said.
ABATE claims these protocols are still being followed and that the state’s helmet, handlebar and noise laws are being used as a false justification for pulling over motorcyclists.
Kirby, a South Tacoma Democrat, says he’s been intrigued by the topic for a while. He sponsored similar bills in 2003 and 2005, but they garnered little attention.
Lately, he’s been wondering whether his long hair and beard would make him a target if he ever got on a bike.
“I would be profiled too if I had a fancy enough machine,” Kirby said, also stressing that his measure has little to do with picking a fight with law enforcement.
“I think what you have is a limited number of people in agencies that have some sort of predisposition about bikers,” said Kirby.
Much of the language used in Kirby’s House Bill 2511 is borrowed from a measure passed in 2002 that required law enforcement agencies to initiate policies to reduce racial profiling. That law seemed to “work overnight,” he said.
Law enforcement officials, meanwhile, deny that motorcyclists are being targeted.
“What motorcycle profiling?” asked Don Pierce, executive director for the Washington Association of Sheriffs & Police Chiefs. “In traffic situations, here’s who we profile: people who violate the law.”