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Cops on Bikes

Two wheels can be better than four, but bike patrol takes lots of practice ... and training.

December 01, 2001  |  by Ralph Mroz

The ability to maintain balance and navigate tight circles is an important patrol skill, and part of the qualification test.

On the third day I found myself heading into the gauntlet at about 10 miles per hour. The "gauntlet" is a double row of students at this three-day COBWEB (Cops On Bicycles With Education for Bicyclists) police mountain bike certification school. The students' instructions are to distract me as I ride by with light slaps on my body, raps to my helmet, etc. My fellow students are all mature, level-headed officers and they respect the bounds of these instructions. Here we go: slap, tap, rap, crash as I toppled off my Smith & Wesson bicycle. No one had hit me hard, no one had tried to cause my dump. In fact, about half the students who went through the gauntlet, as well as instructor Jeff LaFrenier, wound up crashing.

The valuable lesson learned: Don't go riding into a hostile crowd, as even slight perturbations of your bicycle can cause you to topple. Better to learn that lesson here in class on forgiving grass than during a real incident on concrete.

Another lesson learned: Even if you've been riding for years, it's a good idea to take a police mountain bicycle certification course. You will definitely learn something new.

Back to the Future

Police bicycle patrol is not a new idea. In the 1880s, police in many large cities patrolled their beats on bicycles. But when automobiles were introduced, response-based mobile patrol was substituted for beat-based proactive foot and bicycle patrol (which was the original community policing). With this change in approach, the benefits of bicycles were forgotten. Then in 1988, Sgt. Paul Grady, a bicycle enthusiast and police officer in Seattle, Wash., got permission to try out bicycle patrols in that city's downtown and waterfront districts. The ability of bicycle-based officers to circumvent the congested traffic and limiting roadways in these areas soon proved its merit. Officers could respond to a need for police action much faster than a cruiser could get to a scene, and they could get places that no cruiser could ever go.

That initial success led to a police bicycling popularity explosion, and today there are more than 2,000 active police bicycle units in the United States. Other emergency services, including EMS units are also using bicycles in congested areas. Imagine how quickly you could reach someone at an outdoor concert with a medical emergency. How long do you think it would take an ambulance to get through? A bicycle-riding EMT can be there in a fraction of the time.

The benefits of police bike patrols are numerous: It is much less expensive to field a bicycle officer than a cruiser-based officer. The average expense to fully equip one bike is about $1,200, with an annual maintenance fee of about $200. The average patrol car costs about $25,000 to purchase and has an annual maintenance fee of about $3,500.

Response time is quicker in urban and congested areas. Bicycles can go places that a cruiser can't get to, and that a foot officer won't reach in time.

Bicycle patrol is also silent and stealthy. The reports of police just riding up to crimes in progress are legion.

At the same time, the bike officer is visible and accessible to the community, and interacts with people more. This helps the department put a friendly face on its law enforcement efforts.

Practicing contact/cover, the contact officer has laid her bike down and stepped away from it in order to properly confront the “suspect.”

Officers directly benefit from being on bike patrol as well. Increased motivation is one benefit. It can be tough riding on a bike all day, but the exercise guarantees officers will be more physically fit.

Of course, nothing is free, and the disadvantages of bicycle patrol are that a limited geographic area can be covered, only a fraction of the equipment that a cruiser has can be carried, prisoners cannot be transported, and climate may dictate patrol suitability.

However, we should look at bicycle patrol as complementing traditional patrol, not replacing it. The success of the concept can be measured in the fact that bicycle patrols continue to increase - departments don't often voluntarily abandon them.

It is a rare city or even mid-sized town that doesn't have a bike patrol unit these days. Municipal police, sheriff's departments, state police, federal law enforcement, the Secret Service, EMS units, park police, military police, corporate security, campus police - all these units and more use bicycles as a crime-fighting tool today.

Proper Training

A bike program is not just a matter of choosing a few officers, issuing them bikes, and sending them on their way. The criteria for police bicycle officers should specify officers who are motivated, fit, proactive, good community interacters, and well developed in their law enforcement skills. This list does not describe every officer!

Getting properly trained is likewise critical. COBWEB is a Massachusetts-based organization devoted to training and educating police bicyclists. During the three-day certification course I recently attended, we covered the following areas (among others):

  • Fitting the bicycle to the officer
  • Fitness and nutrition
  • The three bicycle mounts
  • Various bicycle dismounts, including the power skid
  • Rapid mounting and pursuit
  • Riding in a straight line
  • Riding very slowly
  • Riding in small circles
  • Riding through cone courses
  • Jumping curbs
  • Proper braking
  • Riding in groups
  • Riding down stairs
  • Cover and contact with two bicycle officers
  • Safe approaches to suspicious subjects

Although I've been riding a bicycle for more than 40 years and have been a recreational mountain bicyclist for nearly 15, I learned a lot in this course. Even if my department didn't require that I take this course, I would have to learn these skills somewhere, and COBWEB is a great place for it.

Let me mention one other lesson learned. On the last day, we all had to bicycle through a course that tested the skills we had learned, and we were competing for time. The last task was to dump the bike (a controlled set down) after a hard bike sprint then run to handcuff a "suspect." Every officer either nearly collapsed or fell as they started to run to the "suspect" - the change in muscle groups from biking to running, especially after the bicycle sprint, was the cause. Better not to learn this on the street!

CONTINUED: Cops on Bikes «   Page 1 of 2   »

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