Calif. City Sees Demand for Police Bike Units: 'Everyone Wants Them'

Aug. 1, 2022
Fresno officials say police bike patrols, which were introduced in the 1990s, have been a highly effective crime-prevention tool, as well as a key to building community trust.

During the Fresno City Council’s 2018 budget hearings, Councilmembers Esmeralda Soria and Paul Caprioglio stood firm in their requests for police bicycle patrol units in their districts.

Their council colleagues teased them for their steadfast appeals, but ultimately the City Council unanimously approved bike patrol units for the El Dorado Park and Tower corridors.

Since then, new councilmembers have taken office, and their attitudes toward bike officers are dramatically different. During this year’s budget hearings, nearly every councilmember asked Fresno Police Chief Paco Balderrama for a bicycle patrol unit in their districts.

“Several council districts wanted bikes, and you’re getting bikes,” Balderrama told the City Council during June budget hearings. “We’re literally going to have probably the most robust bike team in central California.”

In the five years since 2017, 125 Fresno police officers have trained or received certification for bike patrol operations, police officials reported.

Balderrama said the bike units have proven to be highly effective in preventing crime and making arrests. More importantly, he said, they’re a key to community policing and building trust.

Others agree, including Police Reform Commission leaders, business owners and residents, and the officers themselves.

“Now everyone wants them because they’ve seen the value that it brings,” Soria said.

Community solution

During Soria’s two terms representing District 1 on the Fresno City Council, she’s established a reputation for hosting community meetings and events.

It was in one such community meeting in 2016 at the Big Red Church in the Fresno High neighborhood that residents asked for bicycle patrol units on Olive Avenue in the Tower District.

“Folks were saying, ‘Hey, we want more presence,” Soria said about the public safety conversation at the meeting. “The community told us what kind of policing they wanted to see, and that’s what we wanted to make sure that I provided when I was advocating on their behalf through the budgetary process.

“I think that it’s important to listen to community because particular neighborhoods are unique, and you can’t patrol or police in the same fashion that you would in a neighborhood that is maybe less dense,” she said.

Soria began pushing for the bike units years before Balderrama was named chief, but he said she was ahead of her time.

“Listening and being able to be accepting of new ideas is a great way to lead, in my opinion,” he said.

Bike patrols in Fresno

Bike patrols first were introduced in Fresno in the 1990s in Chinatown, Balderrama said. That beat previously was a walking beat.

Fresno uses bike patrols a little differently than other agencies, which will primarily use one bike unit. Instead, Fresno has the metro bike team, which includes two sergeants and 10 officers who can be deployed all over the city, rather than just in one area.

Fresno Police Department currently deploys bike patrols in areas of the city where large groups congregate and there’s a lot of foot traffic, such as downtown, Chinatown, the Cultural Arts District, River Park, Fashion Fair, Woodward, Roeding and El Dorado parks, The Big Fresno Fair and the Tower District.

Typically, officers work in pairs and cover anywhere from 30 to 40 miles per day, said Officer Dustin Freeman, one of the department’s bicycle patrol instructors. Officers still wear body armor and carry most of the same equipment they do in a patrol car, but they must learn specific bicycle skills, such as slow-speed riding and how to properly lock up the bikes, Freeman said.

Balderrama said bike patrols rival Multi-Agency Gang Enforcement Consortium (MAGEC) in the number of arrests they make and how quickly they close cases.

In 2021, the downtown bike unit, which consisted of one sergeant and five officers, made 448 felony arrests and arrested 193 identified gang members, police officials reported. They patrolled 21 special events, such as concerts and cruises, and six protests and rallies.

The presence of officers on bikes naturally prevents crime, Freeman said.

“Criminals don’t like it. They don’t know when we’re there. They don’t hear us coming. They don’t see us as easily, and we’re able to observe and an act quicker in those interactions,” he said.

Many times, bicycles can access places a patrol vehicle can’t, and officers on bikes can do it quicker, Balderrama said. Bike patrols are particularly effective for drug arrests and in areas where there’s high gang activity, he said.

The bike officers also indirectly help response times.

Residents and business owners often already know the bicycle officers. Instead of calling 911 for a problem and waiting on hold, they call the officers directly.

“So if the 9-1-1 call doesn’t get made, that’s one less call that patrol has to respond to,” Balderrama said.

Antony Ayodele, who owns Tower Blendz on Olive Avenue, said he calls the bike officers directly. He knows the names of some people who cause routine nuisances, and so do the officers, he said.

“Sometimes when you call in an emergency, it takes a really long time to get any kind of response,” Ayodele said. “But having them (bike officers) on site allows us to be able to just quickly get an immediate response.

“I think just overall their presence in the Tower kind of eliminates some of the negative things that could happen when people are hanging around,” he said.

Community policing

Fresno leaders from a variety of backgrounds agree that the bike units are a prime example of good community policing, a policing method that builds trust between the community and police officers.

The Fresno Commission for Police Reform in its final report made community policing one of the main six pillars it recommended the police department adopt.

Officers are more approachable on bikes than in their patrol cars, Balderrama said.

“The advent of a police car was great for us to be able to respond long distances, but it took away that face-to-face beat cop aspect that is part of community policing,” Balderrama said. “With bikes, we can bring that back, and we still have the ability to respond to calls in a timely manner and to engage.”

Ayodele, the Tower Blendz owner, said altercations between residents and police are less likely to happen when there’s a pre-existing relationship.

“That’s the kind of the policing that I feel is most effective, when you know the people and you have a relationship with them,” he said. “You’re able to use that relationship to get them to comply, and it doesn’t have to turn into an altercation or anything like that.”

Sandra Celedon, the vice chair of the Commission for Police Reform, said community safety is about perception, and bike patrols contribute to the perception of safety because of their visibility.

Officers on bikes work because they respond to the types of crimes most people are concerned about, such as property crimes like car break-ins, Celedon said.

For the bike patrols and community policing to be successful in Fresno, police department leaders need to weave community policing philosophies into every aspect of the department, Celedon said.

“The challenge for Fresno has been the view of community policing as one program as opposed to the culture of the entire department,” she said. “So the effectiveness of police bike patrols is going to be significantly diminished if they’re operating as a separate program outside of being part of a holistic community policing system.”

Balderrama agreed that bike patrols — and the police department — aren’t a sweeping solution to safety concerns.

“I think it’s a very important key to the puzzle, but the police department can’t do this alone,” he said. “There has to be more opportunity in our community for at-risk communities, communities where there’s where there’s a lack of health resources, lack of education, lack of job opportunities. That is going to help lower violent crime just as much as the police department is going to help.”


©2022 The Fresno Bee.


Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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