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.
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.
Here's what Becker has to say about key pieces of equipment and uniforms for law enforcement bicycle patrol:
Mountain bikes: This is one area where agencies shouldn't skimp. Good, high-quality mountain bikes from reputable manufacturers fit the bill. Why a mountain bike? Because they're designed for rugged use on all terrain. "Some departments think it's OK to go to the big-box store and get their officers a bike," Becker says. She compares it to putting patrol officers in Yugos and expecting them to do the job. "Spending $900 on a bike isn't extravagant; it's a need."
The bicycle is, of course, the most important piece of the equipment puzzle for bicycle units. A bike must be lightweight, but still capable of carrying all the equipment an officer needs, plus the officer himself. The bike will be ridden in difficult circumstances, often dropped on the ground or pavement, and operated over rough terrain.
"Most of the bikes designed for public safety use have heavier components and silent hubs, which eliminate the clicking noises of typical bikes and allows for stealth," Becker says. She adds that rear-mount kickstands, which can be operated without dismounting, also are an important feature on these special bicycles.
Eye protection: Projectiles from passing cars, thick brush, trees and other landscaping can damage the eye. Goggles not only keep eyes safe, but prevent the sun's glare from interfering with line of vision. A well-fitting pair should fit snugly, but not uncomfortably. Wear goggles all the time, day or night, no exceptions.
Helmets: Anyone who's ever worked traffic knows what smacking a skull on pavement can do. That's why biking helmets rank high as a must-have. The good news for law enforcement agencies is that more expensive helmets aren't necessarily any better than cheaper ones. That's because helmets face approval by the Consumer Products Commission. Any approved helmet works, but the key to effectiveness is to buy one that fits well and is worn properly.
"The best source of information for helmets is the Helmet Safety Institute (www.bhsi.org)," says Becker, who adds that some helmet manufacturers are going to a ring fit system. The ring, located inside the helmet, allows for fit adjustment - which comes in handy when the cold requires a head covering underneath the helmet. Becker also says to look at a helmet's venting system. Helmets must have enough vents to release the heat, but not an excessive number. "If the rider is bald, he may need to use sunscreen on his head," Becker adds.
Pedal retention: IPMBA has mandatory guidelines for this safety equipment. Although Becker admits most riders approach the idea of being connected to the pedal with apprehension, they "ultimately discover it's very utilitarian."
Pedal retention devices help officers when traveling over obstacles, down staircases, etc., and prevents injuries sustained when an officer's foot comes off a pedal, which sometimes causes the pedal to snap back and hit the shin. "If your foot slips off while on stairs, you can come forward off the saddle and land on the top tube of the bike (the one between your legs)," she says. "That's something to be avoided." Not too many will disagree with Becker's understated conclusion.
Several types of pedal retention exist:
- Toe cages (made from plastic and available either with or without straps),
- Straps that go across the foot, and
- Clipless pedals, where a cleat on the pedal is paired with special cycling shoes designed to clip into the pedal.
"Some departments, when they consider clipless pedals, think about the old style with large cleats on the bottom that force the foot to stick up," Becker says. Walking with a cleat sticking out of the bottom of a shoe was not only uncomfortable, but downright dangerous. Among other things, the cleat caused a foot to slide when hitting highly waxed surfaces.
Newer designs allow the cleat to retract into the shoe for normal walking or running, and re-emerge when remounting the bicycle. Look for a clipless pedal and shoe designed with a firm sole to prevent it from bending over the pedal.
Cycling gloves: Gloves should be mandatory equipment for all bicycle officers. Becker says the best ones are padded and help decrease the impact to hands should a fall take place, as well as prevent road rash trauma to palms. These gloves are designed to reduce sweat, which also keeps hands from becoming slippery. In addition, Becker says, gloves are constructed to reduce stress on the nerve that runs down a rider's wrist and absorb the shock which normally runs up the arm.
Gloves come in different styles, but officers should choose those that allow them to retain as much manual dexterity as possible, while still protecting the hands. Becker says it's also imperative officers train in full biking gear - helmets, gloves, goggles, body armor - everything. Practice firearms and defensive tactics while geared up, too.
Uniforms: Tons of cyclist uniforms are out there. Selecting the one which works best for an agency depends on budget, terrain, climate and how frequently uniforms will be worn. Becker says for best performance, pick uniforms that are both wickable and breathable.
"They need to allow sweat to evaporate so it doesn't pool up and the officer gets cold," Becker says. "Layering is a big thing." It may be more efficient to opt for uniforms that can adapt to both hot and cold climates if the agency is in an area with extreme seasonal temperatures.
The next big things: Becker says some departments already opt for high visibility gear, such as the neon yellow that helps officers stand out in traffic. But, of course, that limits the ability to sneak into areas without being detected.
Another trend Becker notes is the importation of a certain style of body armor from the United Kingdom. The body armor goes outside a uniform shirt and also serves as a utility vest. "It has pockets and spreads the weight [of the objects carried] around and gets it off the shoulders and hips," Becker says.
Charlotte's Branham says bikes one day will be outfitted with video support systems for evidence, much as patrol units already have, although bicycle officers probably won't be engaging in traffic stops. He's also looking forward to the launch of a prototype of a Palm Pilot-like device that will allow officers to check for warrants, run registrations and, hopefully, someday even integrate into a department's computerized report system.
He also predicts lots of lightweight LED applications for bicycle officers around the bend. He says the brighter lights and small, compact size of LED power fits the needs of bicyclists well.
Community policing efforts are maximized by the modern-day bike patrols. In a world that moves around on wheels, new designs and user-friendly gear make today's bicycle officers prepared to hit the pavement running.
(Both LEBA and IPMBA offer training courses and guidance on everything from starting a bicycle unit to equipment selection, physical readiness and patrol techniques. For more information, see either www.leba.org or www.ipmba.org.)