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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

Like any other unit within the agency, LAPD’s Bicycle Coordination Unit has implemented procedures and regulations in addition to training.

“You have to have a form of rules,” Tuk insists, “so we started a bicycle manual, which is still in the works [eight years later] because it’s just a living document. What we do helps the smaller agencies [who are investigating how to start a bike patrol unit]."

Tuk wrote the unit’s own rules, regulations, policies, and procedures for bicycle officers by working with other agencies. The unit shared notes with the Seattle Police Department, the Sacramento County (Calif.) Sheriff’s Office, and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, all of which were developing bike patrols at the same time.


Acquiring the special skills necessary to ride a bicycle on patrol—which can be difficult when talking on a handheld radio—is essential to having an effective bicycle patrol unit. The LAPD has found that as a big agency it makes more sense to run its own training school.

The department’s bicycle patrol unit finances the in-house training for the five-day-long basic bike school that LAPD runs approximately every other month. It also holds advanced training classes for officers who want to improve their skills.

Because of its size, LAPD has the resources to fund and run its own school. But it shares its expertise by offering training to other agencies in Southern California, as well as agencies in other countries.

Training for bicycle patrol officers should be specific to that unit. Shooting from a seated position on a bike is not intuitive, and it’s not a skill normally taught at the academy.

“A lot of the very small agencies depend on the larger agencies to provide their training,” Tuk says. “Probably the cheapest route is to piggyback on a larger agency.”

But the International Police Mountain Bike Association (IPMBA) also trains a multitude of agencies. This world-wide organization provides training at its conference each year for a fee.

On a Smaller Scale

Det. Josh Birrell of the Barrington (R.I.) Police Department isn’t alone when he says that his department’s biggest hurdle in starting a bicycle patrol unit was financing.

“It was still a pretty new concept when we started in 1998, so we had to present it to our administration as a no-cost alternative to patrol,” Birrell says.

The department began and survived on donations for the first couple of years until it could convince the administration that it was worth funding.

“We [literally] had no budget. We had the [initial] training site donated, and we hosted the training so we were able to get four [of our own] officers trained for free. The bikes we had were donated, thanks to Barrington’s Police Athletic League fund-raising efforts,” says Birrell.

Officers put up much of the money for the day-to-day needs of their unit, and donated some of their time for free.

“At the time, officers were only allowed to ride while they were on duty; there wasn’t any overtime to ride,” Birrell says. “All the officers ended up buying their own dedicated bike patrol uniforms.”

After about two years of scrounging for supplies, the labor of love paid off when the department decided to fund its bicycle unit.

Nowadays, BPD boasts 10 officers who count bike patrol as an added duty. “It’s all overtime, for the most part, so it doesn’t affect the staffing levels of our patrols,” Birrell explains. “They’re not assigned out of uniformed patrol and onto the bike patrol; it’s actually in addition to all the regular patrols we do.”

Summertime, holidays, and weekends require the most bike patrol time, as you might expect. “[Other] days, it’s pretty much at the discretion of the officer,” Birrell says. “If there’s something particular going on—if we’re having a problem in a certain area—we can deploy someone there every day. It kind of fluctuates, but it’s primarily weekends and weekend nights [when we deploy]. It’s not year-round.”

That’s not the case in areas with more temperate or even hot, humid climates, of course. Pasadena, Texas, features a six-bike Bicycle Patrol Program, started in 1997, that rides year-round with a couple dozen officers certified for duty, although only a few are actually on bikes at any one time. Like many agencies, especially smaller and even mid-sized ones, Pasadena also has officers doing double duty, generally pulling overtime on bikes after fulfilling regular patrol responsibilities.

“The way we did it was you would work regular patrol, but sometimes you’d do it on a bicycle,” Pasadena PD’s Sgt. Robert Cissell says. “You’d still make your house calls like everybody else, but you’d have a smaller district. The way we do it now is we allow the bike [officers] to do a lot of overtime for different functions.”

Currently, Pasadena PD is in the midst of a restructuring that at one time threatened the bike unit’s existence.

Cissell explains, “I didn’t want the [unit] to disappear so I asked if I could be in charge of them to make sure the inventory stays correct and that we can still do different functions and still have bicycles and get more guys trained on them. I would really feel comfortable with about 20 to 30 bicycles.”

Fortunately, Cissell says the department’s chief is sympathetic to the Bicycle Patrol Program. “He understands that we are a good public-relations tool, but we’re also effective in patrolling.”

Today, funding is a combination of police budget and donations from the community, which includes oil companies and the bicycle club at NASA. The same goes for bike fleet maintenance. Two officers have undergone bicycle mechanic training. But if a problem is similar to a warranty-related issue like a cracked frame, it gets farmed out to a local bicycle shop.

“We have a bicycle shop here in town that loves us to death,” Cissell notes. “I’ve already bought six bicycles from them [for the department], and I refer people to this shop all the time—not just policemen but a lot of people.”

But the community as a whole is the real beneficiary of Pasadena’s Bicycle Patrol Program, if for no other reason than it reduces crime. For example, Cissell says, at one particular apartment complex the unit concentrated on, “We were catching burglars—we were catching car burglars, car thieves, and we were making a lot of dope arrests because [criminals] are not looking for a policeman on a bicycle. They’re looking for a policeman in a car. I rolled up on one day shift in broad daylight on six guys stripping a stolen vehicle.”

And the dark of night does nothing to diminish that effectiveness; if anything, Cissell observes, bicycle officers are even more useful at night when it comes to crime-fighting. Like other police vehicles, the bicycles have bright headlights—smaller in scale than those on patrol cars, of course, and easily removable—and red and blue flashing lights, as well as official police graphics and lettering.

In the experience of the Bryan (Ohio) Police Department, its bike patrol unit, formed in 2001, is most effective at night. “Our biggest run time is in the evening hours,” Bryan Patrolman Jeremy Viers notes. “As far as second and third shift, we get a lot of activity.”

When it comes to staffing, smaller towns must often juggle assignments, of course. For its town of 9,000, the Bryan PD generally deploys three patrol officers per shift, although only one is assigned to patrol on bike. “If we have less than three, then we don’t utilize the bike,” Viers says. A small agency, therefore, simply might not have enough manpower to field a bike patrol detail, he feels.

After obtaining grants and other community donations, as well as a small budget from the department, Viers set up Bryan’s bike patrol after consulting other agencies and organizations. “We tried to learn from their mistakes before we bought,” he says. “We went with good equipment, and I’m glad we did.”

If you’re interested in starting up your department’s own bicycle patrol unit, it’s a good idea to contact other agencies in your area, or even around the country. But you might also want to contact the IPMBA, an organization that does more than just conduct training and conferences. It also offers a wealth of information on starting up a bike patrol unit. Interested agencies can request the free “IPMBA Police Bike Unit Start-up Information Packet” as well as other reference materials that should prove helpful for those getting off the ground.

While bike patrol units aren’t the complete answer to every police agency’s needs, they do offer such value that every agency should at least investigate the feasibility of incorporating such a tool into its arsenal.

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Mark Kariya is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer who reviews bicycles, as well as motorcycles and automobiles. 

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