By Andrew Binion
KITSAP, Wash. — Thousands of cyclists spinning Sunday up the cliffs of Bainbridge Island signals the start of the cycling season.
And the not-warm-but-warmer weather means local police departments will be putting more officers on two wheels as well.
All five of Kitsap's law enforcement agencies make bicycles available to officers for use during special events and for patrols.
Some departments aim to have bikes for every officer, and the Kitsap County Sheriff's Office has a sergeant and 10 deputies on its Bicycle Patrol Unit.
All agree that the benefits of putting officers on bikes become immediately apparent.
For one thing, bicycles are quieter, smaller and more stealthy than a car. They allow officers to show up unannounced at the scene, before criminals realize they are being watched.
But most important, said Bainbridge Chief Matt Hamner, bikes make officers more approachable, allowing them to build rapport and trust.
The Bainbridge department started its bike program in 1991, around the same time Hamner, as an officer in Indianapolis, was using a bike on patrol.
"So many people come up and talk to you," Hamner said. "You get on your bike and next thing you know you have 40 kids riding their bikes with you."
Police models are available from several brands, but essentially they are rigid-frame mountain bikes — many now have 29-inch wheels as opposed to the older 26-inch wheels — with more durable components, black paint and less flashy graphics.
The Bremerton department started its bike program in 1989 to help patrol the old Westpark housing project, said Capt. Tom Wolfe.
The effect it had on street crime and community relations was immediately apparent.
"When you're in a car, you're in a cage, you're not approachable," Wolfe said. "And the ability to see and hear what's going on and what's going on around you is just amazing."
Unlike larger cities, which assign officers to bicycle duty exclusively, Kitsap agencies have officers trained to integrate bicycles into their patrols. On typical days, they keep the bikes on the backs of their cruisers.
Bike cops often are most visible during the summer festival season. They can be deployed in the summer and winter, but they are most useful when people are out and about.
"Over the last several days, that wouldn't be practical," Sheriff's Office spokesman Deputy Scott Wilson said. "Unless you are a glutton for being wet and cold."
In 2013, deputies logged 297 patrol hours on bikes, and logged 85 hours doing bike maintenance.
Bicycle cops complete a training course that teaches them ways to mount and dismount their bikes so they are in position to slap on handcuffs or draw their weapon. They also must learn how to climb hills while wearing restrictive body armor.
If they are going to be catching criminals in the act, they have to be prepared for encounters with people who might not be so glad to see a cop on a bike.
"It's kind of amazing what you can sneak up on in the middle of the night," Port Orchard Police Cmdr. Dale Schuster said, noting that it isn't just day-shift officers who use bikes.
In Poulsbo, bikes are particularly effective at patrolling parks, said Chief Al Townsend.
"They can be out and about and get into places cars can't get to," he said.
Bainbridge officers might have the envy of Kitsap's police fleet. In December, the department received five new Trek 29er police models, paid for with about $5,000 in casino mitigation money provided by the Suquamish Tribe. The new bikes replace their aging bikes built with Browning Smartshift drivetrains.
Officers mounted on bikes also will be outfitted with new cycling-friendly uniforms.
"I don't think so," Hamner said.
"They were in need," said Paul Johnson, owner of Classic Bikes, which sold the department the bikes. He said the older bikes were interesting because of their unusual drivetrains, which had electronic sensors that shifted gears automatically, but they had reached the end of their service.
Admittedly biased, Johnson is in favor of cops pedaling their beats. He agreed with officers who said it puts a "human face" on police, and he said humanizing works both ways.
"It might also help a bit with empathizing with cyclists," Johnson said of bike officers. "They might understand a little bit more where we are coming from."
Copyright 2014 the KitsapSun
McClatchy-Tribune News Service