How (and why) to set up a bike patrol unit
Bike patrol units offer a high-visibility, proactive community policing presence that is budget-friendly for any size department
One of the reasons police agencies deploy foot patrols is to enable regular contact with citizens not related to a call for service. In essence, it is a community policing strategy as much as a crime prevention and response tactic.
Another way to achieve a sidewalk-level police presence is through bike patrols. These special operations units offer a high-visibility, proactive community policing presence that is budget-friendly for any size department.
Using bike patrol units as a community policing tool
Corporal Richard Wawrzeniak of the Ocean City (Md.) Police Department says that one of the biggest benefits of bike patrol units is increased interaction with citizens in the community.
“Bike officers are not restricted by four rolled-up windows,” Wawrzeniak said. “In between calls for service, bike officers can meet with local business owners, clergy, citizens and other stakeholders in the community. Bike officers typically have a reputation for outgoing personalities.”
Wawrzeniak said that whether it is the “soft uniform” or the way in which they carry themselves, bike officers have less difficulty approaching and talking to people than an officer who is largely confined to their squad car.
“Bike units can engage with kids at the park and patrol entertainment districts more effectively, while being approachable and giving an agency a progressive face,” said Officer Andrew Humes of the College Station (Texas) Police Department. “Bike officers are usually some of the most engaging officers in the department and help build positive community perceptions.”
Sergeant Matthew Grimes of the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department said, “Bicycle patrol is a great community policing tool. It is amazing how many citizens you come into contact with while on a bicycle. You are more connected to the community and kids love to come up and look at the bikes.”
Deploying bike patrol units for special operations
In addition to being “ambassadors” for their departments, bike units are successfully utilized by university campus public safety departments and airport police and for patrolling an assortment of places such as amusement parks, casinos, hospitals and shopping malls. They are also used to respond to demonstrations, festivals, parades, concerts and other mass gathering events.
Fire departments and EMS agencies even deploy bike units for search and rescue operations and mass-casualty disaster response.
“Bikes can fulfill multiple roles in a wider range of environments than patrol cars/SUVs and can be used in many of the same environments as foot beats with faster response times,” Humes said. “Bike units can be a float in a parade, monitor the crowd along the route, be used in rural and urban search and rescue, provide security inside dense pedestrian centers, patrol inside buildings whether a mall or apartment complex, provide highly effective crowd control at demonstrations.”
Grimes added, “Criminals don’t like bike patrol because you can ride up on crimes in progress. They look for police cars coming down street, but bicycles can come from any direction. You can also ride up to locations undetected to sit and observe things.”
Bike units also offer budgetary benefits. “Public safety budgets are always under scrutiny. When the cost to equip and deploy a new patrol car easily exceeds the $40,000 mark, it is easy to see that a $1,000-$2,000 investment in a patrol bicycle is a lot of bang for the buck,” Wawrzeniak said. “For the cost of one patrol vehicle you could equip, train and manage a bike patrol unit for years to come.”
Key considerations for setting up a police bike unit
Patrolling on a bicycle is physically demanding. Pre-screen candidates to ensure they are able to handle the stress of training and on-bike operations.
It is also important that a bike patrol unit is staffed by volunteers. The training is demanding and serious injury could occur. Officers who are mentally prepared for bike training often find that the techniques and skills are easily mastered within a few days. Many agencies require candidates to participate in an oral interview process and/or a demonstration of physical abilities. A basic skills assessment would be ideal for most officers considering this type of training.
“Officers should be experienced enough to be self-disciplined but young enough to remain proactive and physically active,” said Sergeant Evan Coward of the Asheville (N.C.) Police Department. “This is a hard requirement to quantify. A hard-charging, enthusiastic sergeant who rides and sets the example will develop the type of atmosphere that draws the type of officers you want applying for the unit.”
After selection, officers should attend street level crime investigation schools to address things like resolving drug and property crimes.
Coward added that prior training should include community policing, IPMBA Police Cyclist Certification and de-escalation.
“The IPMBA Police Cyclist course is a requirement for anyone riding at our department,” Humes said. “Everyone says they know how to ride a bike until a few hours into the course; then they realize there is far more to law enforcement bicycling that just riding. They learn the bike is both transportation and a tool and officers are capable of conquering a variety of obstacles in a range of environments. Having proper training also avoids the potential ‘failure to train’ and ‘improper training’ lawsuits should an officer be involved in an incident.”
“IPMBA offers countless resources to help a new agency establish a bike patrol unit,” Wawrzeniak said. “IPMBA instructors have had the opportunity, in many cases, to see what works and what does not. Workshops at the annual IPMBA Conference often review how to form a bike patrol unit.”
Wawrzeniak suggests leveraging a local bike shop for repairs and even purchase requests. “Local business owners appreciate the opportunity to do business your agency. Look for indicators of good customer service. Shops that have already established a foothold in the community are a great place to start! They have a wealth of knowledge, and their cooperation can keep your bike unit running smoothly.”
For departments considering setting up a bike patrol unit, here are some key considerations:
- Provide enough officers to remain effective;
- Acquire high-visibility, comfortable uniforms;
- Select hand-picked, enthusiastic leadership;
- Choose community-oriented, proactive officers;
- Fulfill all equipment requirements (lighting, helmets and other safety equipment);
- Benchmark and develop a policy and unit description;
- Determine whether or not officers are required to patrol in teams;
- Personnel scheduling is key if the unit is not full-time.
IPMBA's "The Complete Guide to Public Safety Cycling, 2nd Edition" provides information on almost every application of the public safety bike, as well as personnel, equipment and uniform considerations. Learn as much about other agency’s units as possible – both their challenges and successes.
When you go to your chief with the proposal to set up a bike unit, you will be happy you’ve done all the homework necessary to ensure success of the team early and often on patrol.
If your department is running a successful bike patrol unit, we want to hear from you. We are looking for lessons learned, best practices and bike unit photos for use in upcoming content. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.