(Washington D.C. - WAMU) Riding a rickshaw strapped to a bike - something that's also known as a pedicab - is not an easy job. Pedicab operators often transport three or four people at a time, up hills and often in sweltering weather.
But for pedicabbers in Washington D.C., especially those that operate around the National Mall, their jobs are even harder now. This summer, the U.S. Park Police - the law enforcement arm of the National Park Service - is embarking on what it calls an "education campaign" designed to remind pedicab operators of the laws they have to follow. Park Police spokesman David Schlosser said his department has concerns that these vehicles block the roads, and that some of them are unlicensed and unsafe.
Pedicab operators, however, say "education campaign" is a euphemism for what Park Police officers are actually doing.
They said the officers are needlessly pulling them over, writing them tickets for things that they could do freely in previous summers, and - in some cases - telling their customers not to pay them. "They'll be like 'Oh, whatever he's told you its going to cost, its free,'" pedicabber Ismael Balderas said. "'When you get there, don't give him anything.'"
Sarah Roberts is a college student earning some extra money this summer driving a pedicab. She said she had a particularly ugly experience with a Park Police officer last week.
She had just dropped a customer off at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, she said, when an officer approached her and demanded to see her ID. She refused, and then the officer slapped his handcuffs on her.
"I was just trying to understand the situation and he put a handcuff on me and kind of dragged me over to the hood of his car," she said, leaving a quarter-size mark on her shoulder.
Roberts, a petite 22-year-old with long dark hair, was yelling for help as hundreds of museum-goers stood by and watched. She said another plainclothes officer emerged from the crowd and joined in the arrest. Roberts said the plain clothes officer forced her to the pavement by putting his knee on the back of her thigh.
"I asked the guy 'Why are you helping him? Do you even know what's going on?' she recalled. "It seemed at that point that I'd already been criminalized."
Later on, Roberts said the officers were preparing to search her person and she requested that this be done by a female officer because, she told them, she had been the victim of sexual abuse and didn't feel comfortable being frisked by male police officers. However, Roberts said the officers ignored her request and searched her themselves.
Roberts said she ended up getting charged with resisting arrest and assaulting an officer, charges which she described as preposterous since the officers who arrested her were almost twice her size. "I definitely did not strike or go to strike the police officer at any time," Roberts said. "I would never do that."
As a female pedicabber in a largely male-dominated industry, Roberts says she now wonders if it's still safe for her to ride around on her bike-drawn rickshaw alone. "In the last few days when I’ve been out at work I’ve definitely preferred to not be by myself," she said.
Schlosser didn't return our phone calls requesting comment on Roberts' story.
When I spoke to Roberts about the incident, it was clear she was still very shaken up. She looked toward the ground during our entire interview, avoiding eye contact, and her voice was low and shaky.
Yet, when I asked if I could take a photograph of the mark on her shoulder, Roberts readily agreed. Without any prompting, she pulled up her shirt and flexed her arm in a 'Rosie the Riveter'-style pose, thrusting her pockmarked shoulder directly at the camera.
For more of Roberts' story, click here.
UPDATE - 6/28: Park Police spokesman David Schlosser spoke with Transportation Nation this morning. He says the officer approached Roberts to inform her that her pedicab was parked illegally in a crosswalk and that she refused to move it. He says Roberts was charged with resisting arrest/assaulting an officer, which is a misdemeanor, and failure to obey a lawful order, relating to her refusal to move her pedicab. Transportation Nation also spoke with Roberts again this morning. She acknowledges her pedicab was parked illegally, but says at no time did the officer inform her of this. She maintains that the officer approached, asked for her ID and then arrested her when she refused to provide it. Roberts also says that afterward, while she was in her holding cell, the officer tried to get her to sign on to the version of events Schlosser described. She says she refused.