“We work 10 hour shifts and can be on the bike for as many as 6 or 7 hours, so you have to want to be there," says San Francisco Police Officer Matt Friedman. “There” is assigned to a San Francisco bicycle patrol unit. “It's fun… especially when the weather's nice."
Police have been using bikes since 1869, when an Illinois sheriff supplied boneshakers to his deputies. Today, over 12,000 U.S. agencies use some form of bike patrol. To better understand the history and contemporary practice, we talked to two active bike cops about training, patrolling, and where we can get those crazy loud sirens and bright lights. Read on.
Long before the ubiquitous black and white cruiser, cops caught crooks by bike. Deployed on community patrols, bicycles were particularly adept at catching runaway horses and brazen speeding cyclists known as "scorchers." The monster chainring on the center bike pictured above had one purpose: to go real fast.
Around 1917, the high point of bike usage, there were an estimated 10,000 bicycle cops in the country, and even experiments with bicycle infantry across Europe throughout World War I.
British bicycle troops, March 1917, via Wikipedia
In the 1920’s and 30’s, three things collaborated to reduce the bicycle patrol: policing strategy reform, advancing technology such as radio dispatch, and the automobile’s relentless quest for dominance. Not until the reintroduction of community engagement policing in the 1980's was the bicycle revisited.
So Why Bikes?
Lots of reasons: Bikes are much smaller than cars and can access lots of places a vehicle can't. At the same time bikes are much faster than feet, and can cover more distance than an officer on foot. Bikes are less threatening in the community and far more stealth. They’re better for the environment and the officers health, and they’re a whole lot cheaper than a cruiser.
Bikes are personable and bike cops are available. In an average hour, a bicycle patrol will have over twice as many interactions with the public than a car patrol. “It’s a different way to engage with the community,” says Ofc. Friedman. “You’re out there, people can see you, you can stop.”
To join a bike unit requires a transfer request, training, and certification. The specifics vary but a mix of in-class and on-bike work is required. “The [training and certification] course is offered annually, and always fills up,” says Ofc. Friedman. “We learn maneuvers and tricks, basic maintenance, safety in the street, and pursuit on a bike. I hope they never take me off it, I love it."
SFPD Officer Matt Friedman with department bikes
“The assignment is definitely viewed favorably,” says Ofc. Sanders of the Portland, OR Police Department. “It’s effective. We’re the most active, we make the most arrests, encounter the most problems.” That’s in part due to location - in Portland the 6 officer unit covers the dense downtown - but it’s also because they’re quick to respond and engage.
“We can cover anywhere from 5-20 miles in a day,” say Ofc. Sanders. “It all depends. Arrests require processing and paperwork, so quiet days usually mean more saddle time.”
Most police and security agencies use some version of a mountain bike supplemented with lights, sirens, and portage. “We have Trek and Fuji Mountain bikes. We upgrade the tires to something in between mountain and road slicks, but they're good bikes. They're work horses,” says Ofc. Sanders. "I found an old Cannondale I like. Some people make fun of it, but we can pick out what we want."
Portland, OR Officers Dave Sanders (left) and Dave Bryant
The bikes are designed to take abuse. Officers are taught to ride up and down stairs, and use the bike as both shield and weapon. They’re not very light, or fast, or sexy, but they're not supposed to be.
Part of the assignment training is simple maintenance and care. Officers rely on that training, as well as on each other, to keep rolling. In Portland, all maintenance is done in-house, while the SFPD uses a local shop when specialized repair is needed.
So what happens as these bikes take daily abuse and are aged out of the system? "I don't know,” says Ofc. Friedman, “we've never had new bikes.” So if you were hoping for a decommissioned police bike for novelty’s sake, you might be waiting a while. But if you want a brand new one, go ahead and get out your credit card. You can order direct from Police Bike Store. Don’t forget the siren add-on package.