In the 1860s, the use of police on bicycles was introduced, and by the 1890s, bicycle officer were found in several large American cities. In fact, in 1895, then New York City Police Commissioner Teddy Roosevelt approved a 29-man unit that in its first year was responsible for 1,366 arrests. Later in the early 1900s, as motorized vehicles came into play and the police motorcycle became more prevalent, the police bicycle started its first downward turn.
From the 1930s till the early 1960s, technology swept through law enforcement, changing how agencies did business. Cars, radios, dispatch centers, and crime fighting overshadowed the need to remain in contact with the community. Three presidential commissions between 1968 and 1973 disagreed with the trend and led a movement to reintroduce community policing. As a result, the police bicycle was reinstituted as a valuable patrol option. By the late '80s and early '90s, the police bicycle had made its second comeback. By 1990, 80 cities in 26 states had bicycle patrol units, and in 1992, the first association was created: The International Police Mountain Bike Association (IPMBA).
Fast forward through a couple of recessions, increases in fuel prices, skyrocketing medical insurance costs, shrinking police budgets, another trend focusing on technology, and the use of the police bicycle took another noticeable dip. This was equally reflected in drops in IPMBA memberships. But it's time for law enforcement agencies to take another strong look at this valuable asset. In essence, we need to drive the police bicycle to its third historical comeback.
Stealth on a Bike
There are two types of officers; those who wait for their calls to come in or those who are proactive and make things happen. One of the surest ways to accomplish the latter is to put yourself out there and make contact with the public. In a study mentioned by Chris Menton, a professor from Roger Williams University, officers involved with vehicle patrol averaged 3.3 contacts in an hour. On the other hand, those patrolling on bicycles averaged 7.3 contacts per hour. At first glance you might think vehicle patrol handled the more serious calls, while bicycle patrols handled little more than public relations. But you'd be wrong. The study showed that both forms of patrol did about the same amount of grunt work. Granted, certain call dynamics gave vehicle patrols a distinct advantage. Still bicycle patrols offered some significant tactical advantages over any other form of patrol.
The main advantage of using a police bicycle is stealth. Everyone is looking out for sirens in the distance and preparing for police cruisers to roll up. However, unless the bad guys are covering all access points with lookouts, the police bicycle can sneak in through what would ordinarily be considered inaccessible vehicle entry points. Former bike team members often share how when they were on bikes they could just ride right up to a suspect before he or she even realized it. Surprise is a game changer because it reduces the ability of those being surprised to react.
Another point Menton noted in his study was a phenomena he called "the tenor of the response." There was less drama involved when a police bicycle rolled up to the scene. Bicycle patrol officers were able to place themselves in the mix sooner than officers in squad cars, who had to find a place to park, shut down, get out of the car and walk to the scene. Since time to contact was decreased, it made it harder for suspects to get rid of evidence, plan an escape, or create a bedtime story when asked what was going on.
Lt. David Hildebrand of the Denton (Texas) Police Department (a well-respected advocate and member of IPMBA) agrees, "With their ability to move slower, officers can observe more. They can utilize more of their senses to detect crime, and when necessary they can respond quickly. Due to their stealth advantage, bike patrols oftentimes ride right up on criminal activity while it's occurring."
Better than Foot Patrol
Many agencies use dedicated foot patrols. Though still a viable option under the right circumstances, upgrading to a bicycle patrol can help the officers from these agencies perform their mission more effectively and safely.
At minimum, the use of a police bicycle will increase officer response times and extend their range over officers on a foot beat. Let's face it; you can move a great deal faster and go further on a bike than if you were just on foot. Since the officer is more mobile, it also increases officer safety and survival. Unlike just being on foot, officers on police bicycles can create their own tactical advantages based on the types of calls they respond to.
Directed Patrol on a Bike
As with most things in law enforcement, it all starts with a citizen contact. Since we have already shown statistically that officers on bicycles generally make more contacts, it stands to reason that they also have the potential to be more productive. The trick is to match the resource to the mission. The police bicycle's first and best mission has always been directed patrol.
"Bicycle patrols have been shown to be very successful and effective in entertainment districts, apartment complexes, and high drug traffic areas," stresses Hildebrand. These areas by nature have a multitude of design considerations that inhibit vehicle patrol and slow foot response.
Hildebrand further draws attention to this fact, saying: "Open spaces are (generally) inaccessible to motorized traffic." You can't drive a car through a park or playground for example. Why run across an open area when you can ride faster and cover a dangerous area more safely? On a bicycle, common obstacles are easily cleared. It's faster to stop, manipulate the bike over a fence, and then ride on, than it is drive around the block looking for a safe place to park.
On busy streets, officers can't just stop their cars wherever they want either (excluding exigent circumstances). They can however park their vehicles near their directed patrol areas, deploy their bikes and ride in and around high pedestrian traffic areas. Riding a bicycle gives officers immediate access to people walking around parking lots, hotels, businesses, fast food restaurants, and other potential crime areas.
Back in the day, my own agency's bike teams were in the mix all the time and made huge impacts in the areas they patrolled. Their assignment was to work crime trends and they did it with exceptional flare. Dep. Steve Moser was one such officer and reminded me of a bike team story during a causal conversation about his experiences. Moser told me of a stop he and members of the bike team made on a suspicious person. The suspect had a small amount of heroin on him and they were able to flip him. That interaction led to a dealer who was working out of our tourist corridor. The team was able to flip him too. Armed with the dealer's cooperation, they set up shop at the dealer's hotel, worked his phone, and made 30 drug-related arrests—all of this productivity was generated through a single contact by an officer on a bicycle.
Several other former bike team members from different agencies shared similar stories for this article. They feel that a bike is a great tool in the hands of a motivated officer. They also reiterated how easy it is to sneak into an area and roll right up to the bad guys without detection. It was never about riding around looking pretty for the cameras and being politically correct. It was about making it happen and being on a police bicycle helped them to do so.
Bring Back the Bike
I am not implying a police officer on a bicycle is a magic bullet, but I am suggesting that agencies reconsider adding police bicycle programs. At minimum, bicycle patrol increases citizen contacts, which leads to more productivity, saves on gas, and helps keep officers healthier.
We need to expand the traditional nature and scope of the bicycle patrol mission as well. Many agencies have already proven that officers on police bicycles can be used for crowd control and other tactical purposes.
I have always understood that you go to war with the army you have and not the one you wish you had. I have therefore become accustomed to making the best use of what I have. I am always searching for new approaches to old problems. If your agency has some police bicycles lying around, dust them off and ask to get them rolling again. If you don't have any, try to add them to the next budget as a pilot program. The bottom line is you are either making it happen or watching it happen. Taking another look at how to incorporate bicycle patrols will help you make it happen.
Amaury Murgado is a lieutenant with the Osceola County (Fla.) Sheriff's Office. He is a retired master sergeant from the Army Reserve, has more than 25 years of law enforcement experience.