Police patrolled city streets on bicycles as far back as the late 1880s, when they found the new form of transportation a handy tool for running down suspects or simple patrol.
Bicycles as we know them today came on the scene in about 1885, but there were a number of similar inventions that predated the modern bike. An Englishman finally put together a workable bicycle, and a few years later, a Scotsman added pneumatic tires, paving the way for an enduring transportation staple.
For decades agencies deployed bicycle units, but they eventually lost favor as departments transitioned to the automobile. The advent of modern community policing renewed interest in many traditional police practices, but it wasn't until the late 1980s - 100 years after the first police officers mounted bicycles to patrol their jurisdictions - that bikes started to regain lost foothold in local policing.
With the Seattle (Washington) Police Department leading the way, others dipped their toes in the water and found bicycle units extremely mobile and relatively inexpensive to operate, particularly when compared with outfitting patrol units.
And there were added bonuses. Not only were officers eager to join the ranks of police bicyclists, but bicycle patrols both boosted physical readiness among officers and helped the agencies' community relations. Police bicycling has brought the community policing movement full circle.
Back in the saddle
Wes Branham is president of the Law Enforcement Bicycle Association (LEBA). A Charlotte, North Carolina, officer for about 17 years, Branham has occupied a police bike saddle for 14 of them. Needless to say, he's a big supporter of bicycle units.
"[Seattle police officer] Paul Grady was an avid cyclist who commuted to and from work on his bike, and in the process observed quite a bit of crime, such as drug deals, taking place," Branham says. "He had the idea of going out there on bikes and sneaking up on it."
Although most law enforcement supervisors were initially skeptical at the prospect of bringing such a basic technology back for another spin, it didn't take long for them to realize the bicycle's potential. Police find bikes can take them safely and quietly into places where neither patrol cars nor officers on foot can go.
Branham says there's now a bicycle unit in nearly every major police department in the United States and Canada. "It's been really successful," he says. "The big trend is to community policing and this is community policing at its very best."
"Cops riding through the neighborhood are more approachable than police in cars, and people come up to you and tell you things," Branham adds. "[If you're in a patrol car,] they aren't going to flag you down like they will a bike."
Branham says Charlotte's upscale downtown with its maze of one-way streets that make it difficult for newcomers to circumnavigate, lends itself quite naturally to police biking. Charlotte has about 30 full-time officers who patrol on bikes, with another 100 or so who ride part-time. In order to earn a bike, officers must complete a 40-hour basic bike course based on training designed by Seattle's Grady. They learn skills ranging from bike maintenance and fixing flat tires to nutritional requirements and rules of the road as they pertain to cyclists. Officer candidates also must complete a firearms course while on their bikes.
"In the old school they just gave you a bike and said, 'See you in 8 hours,' " Branham says. "Today, there's much more to it than just being able to get off your bike without breaking your neck."
The equipment nitty-gritty
There's also a big difference between the bikes today's officers ride and the ones that existed 100, 50, and even 10 years ago. That's because, like Lance Armstrong, the legendary Tour de France winner and champion cyclist, police bicyclists don't simply hop onto any old bike and take off. They use specialized equipment that's top of the line and designed for their personal use. They also have to learn how to properly maintain that equipment in the same way they need to maintain firearms in good, workable condition.