As I walk into roll call at the Asheville (NC) Police Department it is obvious that something sets me apart from many of my coworkers. I sit down in a room full of dark blue polyester while wearing a bright yellow shirt and zip-off shorts. My uniform may not be conventional, but I don't complain. I know that I have the best job in the department.
I am a bicycle officer on a unit assigned to the Central Business District of downtown Asheville, NC. The Asheville Police Department Downtown Unit operates in two 10-hour shifts, patrolling everything from back alleys to public squares, from 8:00 a.m. until 3:00 a.m., Tuesday through Saturday. We work concerts, community outreach events, national holidays, festivals, parades, and free speech demonstrations. We are our department's most visible unit.
Physical fitness is a huge part of the job. Asheville is blessed to be a mountain community, with plenty of hills in every direction. With that being said, it's important to remain fit when your ability to respond to emergencies directly relies on turning the pedals. I use my meal break to exercise first thing in the morning. Then I complete paperwork until the city starts to stir. Downtown doesn't really come alive until lunch.
The calls start coming in; time to ride. Helmet, riding gloves, sunglasses, citation book, notepad, bicycle lock, water bottle, nitrile gloves, hand sanitizer...you get the idea. All of it has to travel with me. I pack a jacket too and stuff it all in the bag on the back of my bicycle.
My pre-ride routine includes the tried and true "ABC Quick Check," a bicycle safety and equipment inspection that I learned in my International Police Mountain Bike Association (IPMBA) Police Cyclist course years ago. I now teach the Police Cyclist course through IPMBA for officers at the Asheville Police Department, as well as surrounding agencies. All of the bicycle officers at the Asheville Police Department must complete a 32-hour course and pass a series of written and on-bike tests. The skills learned include slow-speed maneuvering, fitness and nutrition, equipment fitting and nomenclature, and officer safety tactics.
Riding through town on a bicycle, I am exposed. My senses pick up more than they would from inside a car. Also, I am much more visible and easily identifiable by business owners, residents, and tourists. I am stopped frequently by tourists asking for directions or a parking meter tutorial. Community members recognize me as a member of the Downtown Unit by my bright yellow shirt.
Even when taking enforcement action, I often interview offenders and look at ways the same situation can be avoided in the future. That involves inquiring where people sit on the list for public housing assistance, who their mental health or substance abuse case workers are, or whether they are having trouble staying on their prescribed medication. My unit takes a comprehensive approach to problem solving with the goal of reducing the need for enforcement.
My yellow uniform shirt serves a secondary purpose. The hills and curves characteristic of downtown Asheville contribute to the threat presented by its ever-increasing traffic density. My visibility helps drivers see me in the roadway. It also helps other officers find me when I need assistance.
Many times during my shift, I ride up to the center of downtown, marked by the Vance Monument, a 65-foot-tall granite obelisk. The sidewalks are wide there, making the square popular for street performers and pedestrians. This is where most free speech assemblies happen in the city. On any given afternoon there is likely to be a demonstration there comprised of anywhere from five to 100 people, sometimes much more.
In January of 2017 10,000 people marched through Asheville's downtown in support of women's rights. The Downtown Unit is the front line for maintaining a safe atmosphere during these events. Keeping participants out of traffic and providing safe passage is all part of the job. Asheville's demonstrations rarely turn violent but can attract counter demonstrations, causing tension to run high.
The Downtown Unit presents a more approachable, humanizing solution to crowd management while utilizing their bicycles and training to employ safe rolling barricades. We have several officers on the unit who have attended the IPMBA Bicycle Response Team training and we are planning to send another large group to training this summer. This training demonstrates the sheer effectiveness of an organized, well-trained bicycle response team in civil disturbance operations. It is impressive to watch.
Occasionally someone suspected of committing a crime will run from one of our bicycle officers. When this happens, initial instinct is to sprint to catch up with the fleeing suspect. In my eight years riding a bicycle on duty I have learned that mechanical advantage is my greatest asset when pursuing someone. On a bicycle I can ride up and down stairs, turn on a dime, pedal through mud and grass, and do it all for miles at a time. The suspect can only run for so long before losing steam. There is no need for a physical confrontation. I am still fresh and able to perform; the suspect is not.
Dangers of the Job
One of the dangers of being a bicycle officer is being without the protection and security of a patrol vehicle, as they provide physical safety from a host of dangers. Squad cars provide plenty of space to carry patrol rifles, vests, bullets, food, water, and medical supplies. They also keep you warm in the winter and cool in the summer.
Riding a bicycle exposes you to distracted or intoxicated drivers that can run over you; surface hazards that can crash you; and weather that can bake, drench, or freeze you. Hydration and nutrition are huge considerations that most patrol officers take for granted. As a bicycle officer, it is essential to time your meals and gauge your water intake if you plan to last until the end of your shift.
The secret of the bicycle officer's success is the consensual encounter. One bicycle officer can come into contact with more citizens in a shift than a squad of officers in vehicles. This is simply because bicycle officers are not enclosed in glass and steel.
We are constantly being stopped with requests for directions, questions about criminal charges, public safety concerns, complaints, and even the occasional, and welcomed, "thank you." My unit conducts a staggering amount of mental health and substance abuse crisis intervention which coincides with our enforcement efforts. Being a bicycle officer means being more accessible to the community I serve and yields a stronger ability to solve problems. This is the essence of community policing.
What it Means
So, what does it mean to be a bicycle officer in Asheville, NC? It means riding miles up and over unrelenting hills from call to call. It means standing with both hands on your bike ready to push an agitated crowd of demonstrators out of traffic. It means spending hours with mental health consumers and substance abusers in crisis in order to get them the help they need.
It means closing down bars at 2:30am that can't handle their own security and safety needs. It means visiting businesses and residences downtown to be sure their concerns are heard. It means enforcing what some may see as minor laws in order to maintain public order and safety in a city that doubles in size every day and hosts an extremely diverse population. It means working large concerts, conducting surveillance, protecting demonstrators from antagonists, and teaching children how to ride safely in the street. This is a day in the life of a bicycle officer in Asheville, NC.
Sgt. Evan Coward is an 11-year veteran of the Asheville (NC) Police Department who is currently a supervisor and bicycle officer on the Downtown Unit.