When Laura Weintraub posted her inane video, insinuating that hitting cyclists in your car was not only good, but something that everyone secretly wants to do, the shit hit the Internet. She is now in hiding, having received death threats and having been told that she would be decapitated. She has also been booted off the Santa Paula police force, where she served for three years in the records department as a reserve officer.
She will never work in law enforcement again.
Moral of the story: The Internet’s a bitch, yo.
But as with every story, there’s a back story as well. When Chief Steve McLean offered to talk with anyone who had concerns about Ms. Weintraub’s “embarrassing” video, I took him up on the offer. Expecting voicemail, I was surprised to speak with the chief himself. “You pick the day and time, and I’ll clear my calendar for you,” he said.
So last Friday, Eric Bruins of LA County Bicycle Coalition, Nina Moskol of the Santa Clarita Valley Bicycle Coalition, Randi Zabriskie of Yield to Life, her husband David, and I met with Chief McLean in Santa Paula to figure out what had happened and how we could make some lemonade. Quickly.
What became clear after only a few minutes is the following:
- Chief McLean took responsibility for his employee, even though Ms. Weintraub made it off the clock, as a civilian, in a different city, in a different county, and never affiliated herself or the video with the police department.
- Administrative action was immediately taken against Ms. Weintraub. She was put on leave, then terminated from the force. This all happened in less than 72 hours.
- Despite the fact that none of Ms. Weintraub’s actions had any affiliation with the department, the city and the police department felt the full wrath of the bicycling community.
Many people might be fine with that last part. I’m not, because it turns out that Santa Paula is hardly the bike-hating, cyclist-murdering place that Ms. Weintraub’s actions have wrongly made it out to be. The city has hosted the Amgen Tour of California three times. The city has implemented a $4.2 million bike trail, part of a rails-to-trails project that will ultimately connect Piru to Fillmore to Santa Paula to Ventura to the sea. Santa Paula is the first city in the project to complete its segment of the trail.
Santa Paula has recently completed the design phase for a Class II bike lane from Harvard Boulevard to Santa Paula Street. This $650,000, grant-funded project soon moves into the implementation phase. Additional planned projects will connect the bike lane to the rails-to-trails corridor.
The city is more than committed to the recreational and transportation side of cycling. It has three full-time bike officers, an impressive number for a city that only has 28 police officers total. An annual bike fair and bike rodeo have taken place in the city for years, and, what’s a revealing statistic for cyclists accustomed to getting harassed by law enforcement, there hasn’t been a single traffic citation written for a cyclist in the past year.
Tack on the fact that Santa Paula is a key part of the popular cycling corridor that goes to Ojai and Lake Casitas, and it’s no exaggeration to say that with regard to Ms. Weintraub’s actions, the city and its police department have gotten a bum rap. Unlike Calabasas, the city where Ms. Weintraub lives and shot the video, a city that is one of the wealthiest enclaves in California and the home to numerous celebrities and movie stars, Santa Paula is a gritty small town with significant social problems.
The biggest one is crime. The city has suffered from a plague of violent crime — nine murders last year alone — after the city council reduced the size of the police force. As LA-area gangs and drug runners have moved in, the city hired Chief McLean to deal with the problem. He reduced violent crime by 40% in his first year alone, this in a city where many of the families have one parent in jail, and where many others are headed by a single parent or by two parents who both work full time. With a shoestring budget, the police department and the community have done much in terms of outreach to bicycle riders.
Nonetheless, every city can improve when it comes to bike-car-community relations. Chief McLean took the meeting by the horns and worked with us to develop the following three proposals:
- Bring in a bicycle education course from LA County Bicycle Coalition, to be delivered to the city’s bicycle cops.
- Use the bicycle officers to perform outreach and education to the broader community at the annual bike expo and other venues.
- Designate two school resource officers to teach bicycle safety at the elementary and middle school level in Santa Paula.
We also discussed a wide-ranging series of possibilities for furthering bike-community-motorist awareness, not limited to an education and registration program modeled after the LA Sheriff’s Department program that Chief McLean spearheaded when he was captain at the Alta Dena Substation. What was clear was that increased coordination and cooperation with Santa Clarita Valley BC, LA County BC, and Yield to Life were all things that the department was more than willing to commit to.
What was also clear is that Chief McLean and his department deserve praise for the way they handled an incredibly tough situation. They’re ready to move ahead. Let’s judge them not by the mistakes made by a rogue employee, but by their efforts to make Santa Paula a better place to ride … and to live.
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