At Fitchburg program, officers trained in pedal power

By Paula J. Owen, August 4, 2017, The Telegram 

FITCHBURG MA – When 26-year-old Karla A. St. Laurent found out that her employer, Fitchburg State University, was hosting bike training for police officers, the fresh-out-of-the-academy patrolman said she quickly raised her hand to sign up.

Ms. St. Laurent said she loves to interact with the public while on duty riding her bike on campus. She graduated from the Special State Police Officers Academy in May after being given the opportunity to further her education and training while working in dispatch, she said.

Now, the full-time FSU officer said she is on the bike at work twice a week and was eager to learn more techniques during the three-day police mountain bike training held on campus this week with instructor Sgt. Jeffrey W. Watson of the Medway Police Department.

Mr. Watson, who has trained hundreds of officers in the past 20 years, worked with 18 police officers from across Massachusetts during the training course that was co-sponsored by the Fitchburg State Center for Professional Studies and the campus police department.

Mr. Watson taught officers how to properly control the bike in a high-volume pedestrian area; strategies to give officers a better understanding of the mountain bike for community policing; bike patrol procedures; equipment needed for patrol; and the confidence that they can perform their duties as police officers in a professional and safe manner on a bike.

“I enjoy the community policing aspect of law enforcement,” Ms. St. Laurent said. “I like getting engaged with students, staff and residents. Everything we’ve learned is something I’ll use every day, like the way to positon the bike to interact with people in a safer way.”

“I feel 100 percent safer,” she added. “Jeff taught us things you don’t think about typically. Now that we’re trained to do it, it will be second nature for us with muscle memory. It was a great learning opportunity and the training atmosphere was nice rather than sitting in a classroom. It was hands-on and that is how police officers learn best.”

Mr. Watson, 49, who has taught the course at many locations, including Harvard University and Williams College, said he plans to offer another course at FSU in the fall.

“I train them how to control the bike and use the bike as a tool for police work including literally as a tool for safely and tactically doing our work,” Mr. Watson said. “Bike patrol is a great community policing tool that gets officers out of the cruiser and interacting with the public.”

During the “gauntlet scenario” drill Thursday at the Wallace Civic Center officers used what they had learned during a drill emulating a large crowd encroaching on an officer while riding the bike with people pushing, shoving and grabbing them and using the bike to protect themselves, their equipment and gun.

“It’s so they have an understanding of what it feels like,” Mr. Watson said, who has worked at events at Gillette Stadium. “A big event puts a lot of stress on an officer on how to handle it. We teach certain techniques to protect their weapon and tools while doing it. Basically, we worry about our gun in this situation and keep our elbow on the gun while off the bike, protecting the gun between the seat and bike. This mainly shows them how it feels and what happens to them when they get in a big crowd and people get rowdy so they stay in control.”

They also learned how to maneuver between people, he said, necessary if there is a large event at FSU or somewhere else in the city, and people get agitated and begin encroaching upon an officer.

“It is not something that happens every day, but it is part of the training,” he said.

Some of the practical training, he explained, was how to get on the bike, place the bike between the officer and the person they are talking to and emergency braking – something that Mr. Watson says saved instructor Sgt. Luke Tedstone of the Sherborn Police Department from smashing through a windshield when he was pedaling 25 miles per hour and a car cut him off. Anybody can ride fast, Mr. Watson says, but slow riding that is necessary in large crowds takes skill. The officers are trained with cones.

“We’re always thinking about safety, but 99 percent of the time, we’re dealing with compliant people,” he said.

The bike is non-threatening, he said, and can be used as a safety obstacle between the officer and someone else. Maintaining eye contact with people the officers are dealing with, never looking down and always looking up at their surroundings are emphasized, he said.

“Today they learned to implement defensive tactics and utilize the bike as a tool to help protect them,” he said. “If someone starts to be aggressive, it depends on what they are doing for the level you have to use. If they are just yelling at us, we can utilize the bike to create distance to allow us get to our tools. If somebody is coming at us with a bat or bottle, we could utilize the bike by throwing it, if needed. Communication skills to settle things prior to that are key and we would only do that as a last resort.”

Marco A. Ayala, 44, a detective with the Lawrence Police Department and a defensive tactics instructor in firearms, said he learned a lot during the course. He said he used to ride on patrol about 10 years ago, but never had formal training on the bike before.

“We go on patrol and go into alleys and certain areas where we’re interacting with people and it is not the first thing we think about - using the bike as a barrier,” Mr. Ayala said. “For someone committing or about to commit a crime, positioning the bike in a proper manner or utilizing it as a barrier or shield to keep someone from assaulting you is very useful. Things happen in a split second and it gives you time and space and that is all you need sometimes.”

He added that he believes the training is a “must” for all officers.

Police departments from Blackstone, Groton, Hopkinton, Lawrence, Littleton, Maynard and Northboro participated in the class, along with campus police from Fitchburg State and Clark universities.

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