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Bikers to police: Leave us alone

Motorcyclists display solidarity at the Capitol February 7, to protest profiling by the police. (Photo by Ryan Cook/RJ Cook Photography)

Motorcyclists display solidarity at the Capitol February 7, to protest profiling by the police. (Photo by Ryan Cook/RJ Cook Photography)

Senate committee approves bill to prevent profiling of motorcyclists

A  clash between cops and bikers has made its way to the Capitol in the form of a proposed law requiring police to be trained not to profile motorcyclists.

And while the Senate Public Safety Committee passed SB1086 in a 4-0 vote Feb. 6, the suggestion from Chairman Sen. Chester Crandell, a Heber Republican, was for bikers to seek some sort of détente with police.

Dozens of bikers wearing leather jackets bearing insignia patches to display allegiance to their various clubs broke into applause after the committee’s vote. The bill would require the Arizona Peace Officers Standards and Training Board to teach police officers they aren’t supposed to arrest, search or question a motorcyclist just because he is riding a motorcycle or wearing “motorcycle-related paraphernalia.”

Bikers say police, especially the state’s gang task force coordinated by the Department of Public Safety, routinely stop motorcyclists who display their “colors” or “patches” of their clubs and harass them on the roadside either without citing them or citing them for a minor violation. They contend that motorcycle clubs are simply riding groups and aren’t outlaw gangs.

“We like to be just left alone and ride our motorcycles,” said Paul “Sky Pilot” Price, a lobbyist with the Modified Motorcycle Association, a motorcyclists rights organization.

Bart Graves, a DPS spokesman, declined comment, saying department policy is to remain silent on pending legislation and lawsuits.

The bill still would have to be approved by the full Senate and House and signed by the governor to become law.

Lyle Mann, executive director of AZPOST, told the committee there is no need for a new law because the bikers’ complaints are really about police misconduct that can be addressed through AZPOST or the agency of the offending officer.

“We don’t believe this is a training issue. It’s an accountability issue with the individual officers,” Mann said.

The roadside interrogations often last

30 or 40 minutes as bikers are aggressively questioned about their clubs, their tattoos, where they are headed and where they are coming from, said John Dreyfus, a lobbyist for the Arizona Confederation of Motorcycle Clubs. Dreyfus, who belongs to the Alma Motorcycle Club, said police often turn out en masse whenever bikers gather for an event just for the purpose of stopping them and gathering intelligence.

Mann said the bill doesn’t address the problem bikers are having with police. He said arrests and searches require probable cause and are a function of “the totality of the circumstances” such as what people are  doing and where they are doing it.

He said it is also well founded that police have a right to question anyone at any time.

“If this law were to go into effect, I would have to tell officers that everybody who is wearing their paraphernalia could not be questioned and everybody who is not can be questioned, and that on its face doesn’t make sense,” Mann said.  “You’re asking me to teach officers something that is simply not true.”

Mann got catcalls and groans from bikers jammed into the hearing room and standing in the hallway when he said one of the criteria police use to identify a gang is patches and colors.  That prompted Crandell to bang his gavel and threaten some audience members with removal.

Mann said motorcycle clubs wear patches and colors that are similar in style to the Hell’s Angels, an organization that meets the statutory definition of a gang, and that the Arizona Confederation of Motorcycle Clubs supports the Hell’s Angels.

He passed out cards with his email address, telling the bikers to contact him directly if they have complaints about how they are treated by police.

Crandell said there is obvious friction between bikers and police and they should sit down and seek common ground.

Sen. Judy Burges, the measure’s sponsor, said she has several family members in law enforcement, so she understands both sides of the issue.

“This needs to be discussed,” Burges said.

Dreyfus said he has been collecting anecdotes on police harassment of bikers for months. Some of the bikers testified before the committee.

Chuck Black testifies at the senate committee hearing. (Photo by Ryan Cook/RJ Cook Photography)

Chuck Black testifies at the senate committee hearing. (Photo by Ryan Cook/RJ Cook Photography)

Chuck Black, a member of Sons of Aesir Motorcycle Club, said a Yavapai County Sheriff’s Deputy pointed a military-style rifle at him when he stopped to wait on the roadside about 50 yards from one of the club members who had been pulled over.

Black, a burly silver-haired man who wears horn-rimmed glasses, said the deputy then began to question him at gunpoint. When Black asked why he was being questioned, the deputy responded in a raised voice that he was part of an outlaw motorcycle gang and this was his county, so he had the right to know Black’s identity.

Black said he asked permission to pick up his gloves from the ground after they had fallen, and the deputy approved.

“The minute I took my hands off the handlebars he was back in my face with the assault rifle,” Black said. “That’s the kind of harassment we’re dealing with.”

Thomas Mango, a member of the Sons of Hell Motorcycle Club from Yuma, recounted how he was pulled over for speeding in a rented pickup truck in Navajo County on his return to Arizona after his military service in Iraq.

Mango said once the deputy saw he was wearing his “soft colors,” a sweatshirt with the club’s insignia patch, she told him she wasn’t going to cite him, but ordered him out of the truck, called for the state gang task force and a drug-sniffing dog.

Officers found Mango’s gun in the truck and checked it over thoroughly before running a check on the serial number.

“It was demeaning to me as a veteran of the Marine Corps to have my weapon checked like I was a criminal,” Mango said.

His club is suing the Department of Public Safety and Coconino County, alleging police profiled members who were camping at Mormon Lake in July 2011 for the “Too Broke for Sturgis Motorcycle Rally.” Sturgis, S.D., is the site of an annual, massive motorcycle rally.

The lawsuit alleges police pulled members and their girlfriends and wives from their tents in the middle of the night at gunpoint and forced them to stand in the chilly night air for hours in their night clothes and underwear as police interrogated them and photographed them.

The raid came shortly after a camper, who was unaffiliated with the club, shot and killed two others and wounded his girlfriend before turning the gun on himself. The lawsuit alleges police knew from the start the incident was a case of domestic violence and the killer was not associated with the motorcycle club.

“Law enforcement used this as an excuse to stick their assault rifles in our faces and harass us,” Mango said.

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