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Cover Story

How To Start a Bicycle Patrol Unit

Departments across the country reap the benefits of these silent, two-wheeled vehicle patrols.

May 01, 2004  |  by Mark Kariya

According to the Law Enforcement Bicycle Association, the use of mountain bikes as police tools began in 1987 in Seattle, just a few years after the fat-tired bicycles started gaining general popularity, and their effect was both immediate and dramatic.

With construction in downtown Seattle hampering automotive traffic (including patrol cars), crime took a turn for the worse despite increased foot patrols. That led Officer Paul Grady to examine the scene literally from above; his rooftop surveillance showed that wherever foot patrol officers went, criminals tended to slip away around the block.

After pondering how to solve this dilemma, Grady thought, “Mountain bikes!” After securing four new bikes donated by Raleigh Bicycles, the Seattle Police Department bicycle patrol unit was born with Officers Grady and Mike Miller taking to the streets on July 10, 1987.

In their first 30 minutes of patrol, the pair reportedly made three felony narcotics arrests. Their first month, they made 500 misdemeanor arrests, which was five times the average for foot patrols.

Clearly, the Seattle Police Department’s bicycle patrol unit ushered in a new era of policing.

Today, more and more departments all over the world are adding bicycles to their arsenal of tools. Like any new tool or method, of course, barriers must be torn down. In the case of bicycles, the old attitude is one of the biggest hurdles to overcome when starting a bike patrol unit.

Officer Donna Tuk, the bicycle coordinator for the Los Angeles Police Department, says it’s not just the public that often dismisses bicycle patrols as silly.

“The older managers think, ‘What a joke. Bike patrol officers just want to have fun.’ Until they really start to look at it,” Tuk says. She believes the public, many officers, and whole departments, might be surprised at how effective policing by bike can be.

“A bicycle patrol officer is very quiet, stealthy. I can’t tell you how many times when I worked bike patrol that we’d be up on top of a crime before those criminals realized it. Even with the rear hub on the bicycle clicking as it goes along, they still never realized it was a cop approaching,” says Tuk.

LAPD officers on bicycle patrol write more tickets than those in cars, according to Tuk, because they get the chance to build relationships with people and can more easily keep an eye on what’s going on.

“Everybody feels that they can approach a bike cop, and they can communicate better. When you’re in a car, you don’t have time to stop—you’re usually running from one call to another. When you’re on foot, you just don’t get the miles in; you’re limited to those blocks you’re walking. But on a bicycle, everybody wants to be friendly with you.”

Because of this, bicycle patrols are good community-policing tools. They’re also very inexpensive when compared to the costs of maintaining cars and motorcycles.

If you need no further convincing but aren’t sure of how to go about getting a bike patrol unit started at your agency, follow along as we examine how several different departments did it. Perhaps you’ll be able to glean the appropriate methods that are right for your particular situation and join the growing ranks of agencies that have bike units.

The LAPD Way

When the Los Angeles Police Department began to consider a formal bike patrol unit, it pulled a few bicycles out of the confiscated/lost-and-found locker. At first, the department used road bikes—the ubiquitous 10-speed—and quickly determined they weren’t suitable for patrol use, especially at the beach. That led to trying beach cruisers, which were more comfortable with their bigger tires and more relaxed riding position. However, being single-speed bicycles made them considerably more difficult to use. About that time mountain bikes were beginning to grow in popularity, so they were the next step. Still, there was no formal bike patrol unit.

Tapping Resources

Starting any unit requires equipment, training, and equipment maintenance. With limited monetary resources, creativity is often necessary to get the ball rolling, even for large departments.

“To get the program off [the ground] we went to the community and got donations,” Tuk explains. “A lot of the business people and others in the Los Angeles community wanted a bike patrol because they saw it as a nice way for them to relate to us and us to relate to them. So they supported us by donating bicycles.”

For no-cost maintenance, many bike shops around the city donated their time to fix fleet bicycles. But officers also often fixed them themselves.

Tuk remembers that when she started in the bike detail around 1995, “If you didn’t get a donated bike, you bought a bike, and you paid for your tubes and your tires and your maintenance and whatever else because we just didn’t have any money.”

The bike donations LAPD received allowed the bicycle patrol to start. But it also created a mish-mosh collection of a bike fleet with no monetary support.

That situation, however, didn’t last long, thanks to grants.

When Tuk took over the LAPD bicycle unit in 1998, she started working very closely with the Environmental Affairs department and the Air Quality Management District (AQMD). Because bicycles are considered environmentally friendly forms of transportation, these organizations promote their use through grants.

“For an agency starting out, small or large, your biggest benefit is to hook up with them because they provide grants to bicycle units. The first grant we received from them involved 135 bicycles, which replaced almost all of our donated fleet. This is one way that agencies can get money.”

Tuk has found that putting cops on bicycles provides another benefit: health.

“Our sickness rate and injury rate is much lower among bike cops,” she says. This makes officers happier and keeps them on the streets and out of hospitals, which is extremely cost effective.

Maintaining a Fleet

After procuring the bikes, you’ll need to establish a system for maintenance and repairs. After all, the two-wheeled equivalents of patrol cars blaze through maintenance cycles at a greatly accelerated rate. The lifespan of a police bike typically averages two to four years, Tuk estimates.

“Through asset forfeiture we were able to get some money to use in our budget to buy bicycles—we have a rather large bike fleet here at LAPD (averaging 180 officers in winter to 300 in summer)—buy repair items, buy grease and lube, stuff like that, and safety equipment. Back in the old days, we bought our own helmets, [sun]glasses, and gloves, and now the unit provides them.”

When it comes to maintaining its fleet, instead of having an in-house team of dedicated bike mechanics, LAPD outsources much of the work to bicycle shops around the city. Each division does have its own set of tools, work rack, and some spare parts so that minor things like replacing punctured tubes, bent wheels, worn out brake pads, or other simple tasks, can be handled quickly in-house.

But there’s still plenty of work for the contracted independent bike shops who, of course, stay up to date with the latest bikes, parts, and accessories. It is, after all, their job.

And, as Tuk points out, “For liability’s sake, you want to have people who are certified bike mechanics. If someone gets injured after a bike’s repaired by untrained personnel, you leave the city wide open to lawsuits.”

Joining the Ranks

When it comes to recruiting officers for bike patrol, improvements have been made over the years. A combination of volunteers and “appointments” brought people on the unit in the early days. Now, “bicycle patrol” is a position that’s actually coveted among some patrol officers.

Once accepted, officers must successfully go through the LAPD’s bicycle training school before they’re qualified to ride patrol. Each of the LAPD’s 18 divisions, plus special units such as bike patrol for Los Angeles International Airport, have an average of six to eight officers that ride. And they’re not rookies stuck with the detail.

“Usually, applicants are officers that have two or three years on [duty], have done patrol in the black-and-white, maybe even worked a foot beat here and there,” Tuk says. “[They’re usually] experienced officers that go out and try bike patrol.”

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