Charlotte uses a Kona brand bike called "The Hoss." This substantial, but lightweight, bike is made for "a rider that's a little bigger," Branham says. "If you get cheap-framed bikes, they tend to break. They're not made for heavyweights." Plus the bicycle must be able to withstand some rough situations. Bicycle officers don't have time to set the kick stand when they jump off their bikes to pursue a chase on foot.
Olympic uniforms, made of wickable fabric that channels moisture away from the body; gloves; glasses or goggles; clipless pedals; and helmets are mandatory safety equipment in Charlotte, as they are in many departments. In winter officers switch to Gore-Tex jackets, which allow them to layer for the cold, yet don't trap body moisture.
"We ride in the rain, but it depends on the time of the year," he says. "If it's cold and raining, we don't." Bike officers also have the option of taking a car out when the weather is bad - but they'd much rather get underway by their own pedal power.
Bike units the smart way
Charlotte deploys its bicycle officers for a variety of operations, but Branham says they are particularly valuable for surveillance. "We can cut through trails and parks, and sneak up on people," he says. Originally set up in areas rampant with prostitution, the department found bike officers very useful for covert observations of sex and drug deals transpiring on the streets.
Where a car could be seen approaching from miles away, bicycles fade into the scenery. And Charlotte deploys its bike officers on permanent beats, where they work areas with large numbers of hotels. The officers make contact with hotel managers and keep an eye on known offenders on the premises.
"We don't necessarily answer 911 calls," Branham says. "We're self-sufficient." And since they work the same beats repeatedly, these officers get to know the people in the area, including criminals.
Abilene, Texas, Police Sgt. Joe Tauer, of the department's Community Service Division, says its bike unit works special events, parades and any circumstances involving a large group of people. The 180-officer department's bicycle unit consists of one lieutenant, Tauer and 15 officers. Members are chosen through try-outs among a pool of volunteers who work with the unit.
"We look for a good officer, one who is self-motivated, energetic and willing to get out there and engage the public," Tauer says. "We have to find that happy medium between someone who wants to police and someone who wants to communicate with the public."
The bike unit, which got its start in 1995, originated as a pilot project using unclaimed bikes from the property division. Officers worked on their own time or for compensatory time, in addition to their regular shifts. Although Abilene does not yet have a full-time unit, their equipment has been upgraded. They now ride Trek 4500s, purchased by the department with some help from grant money.
Tauer, like Branham, is bullish on bike patrols. He predicts they will become more and more useful as fuel fluctuates. "In the future I see more bike officers," Tauer says, adding that deployment of bicycle officers not only increases productivity and community visibility, but also saves wear and tear on vehicles.
Tauer's advice for officers lobbying for a bicycle unit: Bike units aren't necessarily a one-size-fits-all solution. Do your homework and take a look at other agencies' programs. "The main thing is to have a plan, and when you sell it to your administration, be prepared to answer the questions of the program's pros and cons," he says.
When bicycle units started popping up around the country again, many officers grabbed an unclaimed Schwinn from the property division and pedaled into the sunset. Now, bike units have become as high-tech and equipment-specific as any other division of policing.
Maureen Becker, executive director of the International Police Mountain Bike Association (IPMBA), can talk bike equipment in her sleep. She stays current with what's used in law enforcement circles, as well as the failures and what's on the drawing board. Becker says the "grab a bike out of property" approach of the past is not only outdated, but potentially dangerous. Departments that want to keep their officers rolling need to check out the tools of the trade and equip their team with as much commitment as they give to the SWAT guys.