Bike Patrol Case Studies:  Ann Arbor and Univ of Michigan

It has been more than a decade since the renaissance of the police bike patrol. Over the years, law enforcement agencies of all types have formed bike units to enhance their ability to serve their communities. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics 2000 report on local police departments (NCJ 196002), 43% off all agencies, including 94% of those serving 100,000 residents or more, use bike patrol on a routine basis, up from just 28% in 1997. The 2000 report on sheriffs' offices (NCJ 196534) indicates that 13% of all agencies, including 50% of those serving 500,000 or more residents, use bike patrol, up from 6% in 1997. Why are so many police departments putting cops on bikes? Because although no two departments face exactly the same challenges, there is evidence that bike patrol works under a wide variety of circumstances. Departments have many different reasons for implementing a bike patrol. There are often many obstacles - internal and external - that must be overcome before the bike patrol can hit the streets. Decisions must be made as to the best way to integrate the bike unit into the existing command structure. Once in place, the bike unit must prove itself as an effective tool for accomplishing the purpose (or purposes) for which it was created. Despite the challenges faced by those urging this type of innovation within their departments, it appears that bike patrol is here to stay.

This series of articles will demonstrate how two police departments have successfully implemented bicycles in their day-to-day operations.

Bike Patrol Case Study: The University of Michigan Department of Public Safety

by Sergeant Gary Hicks, University of Michigan Department of Public Safety

Why Bike Patrol?

The University of Michigan Department of Public Safety identified several important areas that could be addressed by implementing the mountain bike patrol.

  • A bike patrol could assist in the department's efforts to form a common bond with and gain acceptance throughout the university community.
  • A bike patrol would establish a friendlier, more service-oriented department.
  • A bike patrol would help reinforce the department's strong commitment to community policing.
  • A bike patrol would add enhance the department's ability to enforce the law in areas not easily accessible to traditional methods of police work.

Barriers to Success

There were three major obstacles to be overcome before a bike patrol could be successfully implemented. The first was winning the acceptance of the university community for this new policing method; the second was addressing a lack of in-house expertise with the bike patrol concept; and third was determining how to dealing with Michigan's climate during the winter months.

Overcoming the Obstacles

When the officers first began to patrol on bike, they aroused the curiosity of the public. Citizens began to ask questions, opening the door to a positive relationship. It was not long before the community began to realize that the bike officers were very quick to respond to problems, and that they could monitor less accessible areas in a shorter period of time. The officers were trained to take a proactive stance; their high-profile presence attracted a lot of positive attention. Faculty members and students quickly accepted the mountain bike patrol as a highly productive and professional method for policing the campus.

The U-M Department of Public Safety addressed its lack of bike patrol expertise by attending the annual conference of the International Police Mountain Bike Association (IPMBA). Networking with conference attendees from other departments saved months of time and thousands of dollars by eliminating much trial-and-error. At the conference, the officers obtained essential skills and the knowledge that gave them the foundation to perform as professional bike officers.

Subsequent to the conference, additional internal resources were dedicated and a training budget was established. Officers were sent to instructor training and bike maintenance courses. An in-house training program was established to keep the officers' skills and knowledge current.

The concern about Michigan's harsh winter climate was overcome when U-M officers visited the vendor booths at the IPMBA conference. The vendors provided useful, "hands-on" displays of new and innovative police mountain bike supplies, including gear for winter patrolling. The officers were able to personally experience these products, ask questions, and discuss concerns with representatives from uniform and equipment companies. The officers responsible for making the purchasing decisions became educated consumers, which gave U-M's administration confidence that the dollars budgeted for this project were being used wisely. Once the proper equipment was identified, it was just a matter of sizing the officers and waiting for delivery.

Implementing the Bike Unit

The bike unit is comprised of nine officers, two sergeants, and one lieutenant. In addition, there is a bike training coordinator and a bike mechanic. All bike patrol positions are bid for on a seniority basis and require a two-year commitment. Three officers are assigned to the day shift and six officers are assigned to the afternoon shift. The officers ride daily during 10-hour shifts, with their activities controlled through their shift supervisors.

There is a two-stage selection process for officers interested in becoming members of the bike program. First, they must participate in an oral board interview. Officers who are selected on the basis of their performance during the oral boards then have 90 days to successfully meet the physical standards. The physical standards test cardio-respiratory fitness, anaerobic power, and dynamic strength. Age- and gender-specific physical norms, as outlined by the Cooper Institute for Aerobic Fitness, comprise the fitness standard. Events tested are the 1.5-mile run, the 300-meter run, one-minute sit-up, one-minute push-up, and the vertical jump. If an officer is unsuccessful, he or she may retest at any time during the 90-day period. Those who ultimately pass both the oral and physical tests and are accepted onto the bike team must successfully complete the IPMBA Police Cyclist Course. Throughout their two-year commitment, they must demonstrate a continuous improvement in their level of performance in order to maintain their eligibility, and their proficiency is tested quarterly.

Measures of Success

The bike officers are very proactive and perform directed patrols in high-traffic areas of the university that are frequented by students and staff members. Many of these areas are not easily accessible by traditional marked police cars. The access provided by the bikes has enabled the officers to identify subjects that cause problems and to take corrective action. As a result, the problems in these areas have been significantly reduced.

Because the University of Michigan property is located throughout the city of Ann Arbor, U-M officers cannot operate in isolation. In some cases, problems addressed by the bike patrol officers in one area shift to another part of the campus or into the city. When bike officers recognize a problem, they pass appropriate information onto other police jurisdictions that may be handling similar complaints. This sharing of information occasionally results in the other agencies's ability to establish list of possible suspects and enhances their ability to correct the problems.

The bike officers have aided the homeless population in finding shelter and other assistance. They have also been successful in encouraging some of the homeless to enroll in alcohol rehabilitation programs.

As home to the largest football stadium in the country - the Big House holds over 112,000 fans - the U-M bike patrols play an essential role in game-day law enforcement. In addition to monitoring traffic and parking on game days, the bike patrols help stem under-age drinking at pre- and post-game tailgate parties and enforce ticket scalping regulations.

The effectiveness of the bike officers at the games has caused their presence to be requested at nearly all university-sponsored events. Bike officers coordinate with other agencies to enforce miscellaneous violations; monitor crowds during festivals, fairs, and other sporting events; make appearances at children's activities; enforce traffic regulations; and even lead parades. These activities are in addition to their standard responsibilities patrolling campus and performing community-policing activities.

Meeting the Objectives

When officers began patrolling the campus on mountain bikes, a new and fresh relationship developed between the police and the public. A rapport was easily established through the common ground provided by the mountain bike. Many officers reported that people frequently stopped them and inquired about the bikes, the equipment, and even the fitness benefits. Most of the curious were teenagers and young adults, in other words, college-aged people.

It quickly became clear that the bike patrol concept would be a valuable tool in assisting the U-M department with its strong commitment to community oriented policing. By design, the bike officers patrol certain areas and become familiar not only with the buildings, but also with the faculty, staff, students, and other persons who frequent those areas. The officers' more approachable image is enhanced by their "softer" uniform design. Their increased public exposure, has encouraged the community policing bike officers to initiate meetings with staff and student groups to discern their problems and pressing concerns. Armed with this knowledge, the officers are able to assist the groups with devising solutions. The new, approachable officer provides the community with a law enforcement partner instead of an authority figure who drives by in a marked police car and responds only after a crime has been committed. This partnership is enhanced by the ability of the bike-mounted officer to access areas unreachable by car much more quickly than a foot patrol officer. As a result, officers have become much closer to the people and more in touch with the enforcement issues that need to be addressed.

U-M's Department of Public Safety has also realized some unexpected benefits through the implementation of the mountain bike patrol. In terms of health benefits, the bike officer fitness standards require the officers to maintain their strength and cardiovascular conditioning. This conditioning better enables the officers to handle any physical confrontations that may occur during their 10-hour workdays. The required physical training has also helped to reverse the physical inactivity that has been the accepted trend of so many police officers in past years. It is also helping officers to develop personal lifestyles involving more physical activity, thereby reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease associated with a sedentary lifestyle.

U-M's bike patrol has been a most successful experiment. It has proven to be a great crime prevention tool. It has enabled the department to target specific areas for regular enforcement and/or directed patrols. It has enhanced the safety of the students and the public during large-scale events. And it has become a source of great pride and has enhanced the department's ability to function as a true team.

Gary Hicks is a Police Sergeant with the University of Michigan Department of Public Safety. He is currently the supervisor in charge of the Special Events Section. He is also the Department Fitness Specialist and Bike Patrol Trainer. 

Bike Patrol Case Study: The Ann Arbor Police Department

by Officer Kathleen D. Vonk, Ann Arbor Police Department

Why Bike Patrol?

The population of Ann Arbor fluctuates on a normal college schedule with the influx and egress of 35,000 University of Michigan students. With these temporary residents come typical college-related crimes, such as minors frequenting liquor establishments, disorderly conduct in and around the bar district, public urination, property destruction, open containers, and other alcohol and drug-related violations. With them also come the street-wise "regulars" who prey on naive young adults who are living away from home for the first time. In the late 1980's and early 1990's, it was not unusual to observe 150 - 200 youth take over a street after the bars closed and engage in fights. Street assaults and robberies were common. City parks near the downtown area were plagued with alcohol violations, assaults, and drug dealing and use.

In 1988, the agency created the Special Problems Unit, or SPU, a team of six officers tasked with ridding the community of these types of crimes and making the downtown area a pleasant place at all times of day and night. Working in conjunction with the road patrol, this problem-oriented unit responded to high priority crimes in progress, engaged in proactive, target-specific enforcement, and patrolled the parks on a regular basis. Freed from the obligation to respond to low priority report runs, these officers had the time and flexibility necessary to target the specific issues which negatively impacted what was otherwise a relatively clean and safe city.

Recognizing the stealth and mobility of the mountain bike, a couple of creative SPU officers decided that it would be ideal for crime enforcement in the downtown area. A local shop donated two bicycles, and the bike patrol was born. The bike-mounted officers proved successful in the fight against crime in just a few weeks, even making an in-progress arrest for home invasion. The effectiveness of the bicycle as a law enforcement tool was proven, and the department decided to conduct research and formalize the program over the winter months. The new bike unit was scheduled to hit the streets the following spring.

Barriers to Success

Internally, the bike patrol program received overwhelming administrative support. The officers were outfitted with the best equipment and uniforms and given a great deal of flexibility in patrol techniques, which allowed them to experiment with different methods and determine which ones were most well-suited to bikes. There was some skepticism, but it was no different than the rivalry which normally exists between an agency's different units. The main barriers to success were logistical, relating to such issues as prisoner transport, equipment storage, and sustained funding.

Overcoming the Obstacles

One problem which evolved centered around the constant need for a transport car. The bike officers were so successful that they frequently had to call upon their motorized counterparts to transport their arrests. This was a source of some friction, and demanded an unconventional solution. If the arrestee was cooperative, one bike officer stayed with the handcuffed suspect while the other rode back to the station for a patrol car. Transporting their own prisoners in this manner promoted self-sufficiency and alleviated the animosity from other officers.

Another obstacle to success was the space required for storing equipment. Parking spaces are at a premium in downtown Ann Arbor, even for police vehicles, and now bikes were competing for space with police cars and motorcycles. Fortunately, the main fire station across the street from police headquarters allocated some space in their parking garage to the bike unit for storage and maintenance. The lighting was very dim and the air damp (more than a few bicycle parts rusted out over the winter months), but at least it was close to the police station. Only recently has the department attempted to address the lack of space for bicycle storage and maintenance: the bikes now occupy a ledge in the police garage wide enough for all 21 bicycles. Maintenance is performed in the security garage where prisoners are driven in and brought into the station. It is not ideal, but it is an improvement over the previous conditions.

Although funding was plentiful in the early years, more recent budget restraints have caused the purse strings to be tightened. Departmental spending on uniforms and other equipment has been curtailed, causing the bike unit to seek alternative funding sources. For the past two years, Target/Marshall Field's has made financial contributions to the Ann Arbor Police bike unit, enabling the purchase of bicycles and lighting systems. A federal community policing grant added four new, fully-equipped bicycles to the fleet, and a nationwide grant program brought one more. Instead of purchasing all uniforms and equipment for bike officers, the department now reimburses officers for one uniform shirt and one pair of shorts, with one condition - that they ride at least 200 hours per year. The cost to the agency is much lower than with the former practice, and the policy provides an incentive for officers to ride frequently. This encouragement to choose a bicycle over a patrol car in turn promotes the visibility of the bike unit in the community.

Implementing the Bike Unit

Originally, the bike unit was separate from road patrol. The six officers were part of the SPU, which had one supervisor. Since that time, the department has adopted the Community Policing concept on a citywide basis. All officers were then considered community police officers and were assigned to specific geographical areas, where they were expected to take ownership of "their" beats. All officers policed their districts as teams, handling all special problems that arose within their boundaries. Because officers were to take care of any problems within their own areas, there was no longer a need for a city-wide Special Problems Unit. The large-scale problems had been eliminated, so it seemed appropriate to allow the SPU to dissolve back into road patrol.

The transition went fairly smoothly. For the first year, the former SPU officers were assigned to the downtown district. They continued to utilize bicycles as their only mode of transportation, and continued to write tickets and make arrests. Under the new community policing initiatives, bike use slowly expanded to other areas of the city, and by the end of 2002, 82 officers had been trained as police cyclists.

Currently, there are 25 active police cyclists in road patrol, all of whom have different road patrol supervisors but who share a bike patrol supervisor. In addition to her regular assignment duties, the bike patrol supervisor oversees all bike-specific issues, including policy and procedure, initial and in-service training, and equipment selection, purchase, and maintenance. The continued success and smooth operation of the bike unit, as well as its openness to progressive change, are attributable to strong leadership at this supervisory level.

Four of the department's trained police cyclists are designated "beat officers." These beat officers patrol a small geographic area containing a very dense business population. These officers are the classic community police officers in that they take care of any and every problem arising within their assigned blocks. They have frequent face-to-face contacts with business owners and workers. Their goal is to become personally familiar with everyone in their areas, including visitors and newcomers. Beat officers handle and prevent crime through targeted surveillance and enforcement, attend business association meetings, and stay in tune with merchants' concerns.

The beat officers and road patrol cyclists who work in the downtown area use only bicycles for transportation. Those who are assigned to the larger geographical districts utilize patrol cars equipped with bike racks. This operational procedure allows for days of minimum staffing, when every officer must have access to a motor vehicle with full emergency response capabilities. During such times, they are able to combine the advantages of a bike with those of the patrol car. For instance, if a stealth approach is appropriate, it is not uncommon for officers to stop short of the call, remove the bicycle from the rack, and continue into the area in an inconspicuous manner. If calls for service are minimal, an officer can cover parts of his or shift on bike, perhaps engaging in proactive patrol throughout the crime-ridden areas which are inaccessible to patrol cars, or riding through the city parks.

An essential part of implementing a successful bike patrol is training. The AAPD has always valued initial and on-going bicycle training, and requires each officer to pass the International Police Mountain Bike Association's Police Cyclist Course prior to sitting on the saddle. All bike officers are required to attend an annual one-day refresher course, consisting of urban obstacles, low speed maneuvers, and an off-road skill-development ride. The department has recently instituted a time trial as part of a physical fitness standard to ensure that only those who ride bikes on duty are fit to do so.

Prospective bike unit members will be required to meet a minimum standard to join the unit, and current members will be required to re-qualify annually. This will minimize the risk of injury due to poor fitness or cardiovascular health.

Measures of Success

At the onset of the program, the bike unit charged into the city on high quality mountain bikes, prepared by a 40-hour police mountain bike training course, and wearing professional but comfortable cycling uniforms. It was quite a surprise to the criminal element, which was used to hiding from the cops with relative ease. And so the games began with the "bad guys" striving to keep tabs on the bike cops, and the officers continually inventing creative ways to adjust. The criminals started using code whistles for approaching 5-0, so officers started wearing plain clothes and planting themselves inside buildings with tinted windows.

They conducted surveillance on specific "thugs" or just blatantly followed them everywhere. Eventually these targeted criminals became tired of the extra attention they were receiving and moved their operations elsewhere. SPU officers on bicycles would use binoculars and environmental concealment to spy on activity in the parks until several violations were observed, then sweep down in full force. These sweeps led to additional drug, warrant, and fugitive arrests. The unit hit the student residential section hard with alcohol violations, and it wasn't unusual to have five to ten students lined up, waiting to receive their citations.

On bicycles, SPU officers addressed problems in the bar district and conducted frequent liquor inspections. They tagged "cruisers" for open intox and loud car stereos, and arrested drunk drivers. The officers riding bicycles, wearing polo shirts and shorts, soon became a normal part of the downtown scene.

The success stories are too numerous to cite. Ann Arbor Police Cyclists have teamed up with University of Michigan Police Cyclists during football season to patrol student residential sections, and have written thousands of tickets for alcohol and disorderly crimes. They also work together during the annual "Hash Bash," during which thousands of pro-pot smokers visit the city, purportedly to gather support for the legalization of marijuana, but mostly to hang out and smoke dope. The misperception on the part of those who attend is that possession and use of marijuana is not enforced in the city. As a result, hundreds of arrests and tickets are earned over the course of the weekend.

Officers on bike patrol have pursued and caught armed robbers, home invasion criminals, car thieves, criminals breaking into cars, and criminals in possession of stolen property, including bicycles, computers, money, and jewelry. They have assisted in searches for missing children and joggers by swiftly traversing parks, walking trails, and residential areas with no engine sounds to muffle cries for help. They have patrolled in plain clothes and on plain bikes, targeting specific areas for home invasions or following known criminals. Some city parks once known for alcohol, drugs and assaults are now visited by families and peaceful citizens. The housing officers have used bicycles in the areas where both stealth and speed are essential, pursuing and arresting many drug dealers, street thugs, and trespassers. In one instance, housing officers responded to a domestic assault and the suspect fled on foot just before they arrived. He was about 50 yards from the officers and was verbally taunting them as they approached - until he realized they were on bikes!

Throughout the decade, AAPD bike officers have directly and indirectly curtailed crime in the downtown and student residential areas. The heavy enforcement over a long period of time has had a benefit much more difficult to measure - the avoidance of more serious crimes which are often related to heavy alcohol and drug use. Who knows how many rapes have been averted after freshmen have been cited for alcohol and have gone home instead of drinking and partying all night? Who knows how many assaults have been averted by the removal of intoxicated minors from bars? These are statistics that will never be known, but a marked difference is seen in the downtown area where a "zero tolerance" policy is practiced by bike patrol and road officers alike.

Meeting the Objectives

The bike unit has more than justified its existence and has surpassed the original departmental goals. Ann Arbor PD has brought policing by bike to its full potential, unlike some agencies which use bike patrols primarily for public relations. Seattle is famous for starting the modern renaissance of bike patrol in the 1980's. The congested traffic conditions hampered their crime-fighting effectiveness, so they turned to bicycles. Their success inspired agencies throughout the U.S. and Canada to implement bike patrol, but some agencies did so only to follow the trend. AAPD, however, implemented the bikes for their stealth, mobility, speed, and maneuverability, that is, their crime-fighting ability. Community oriented policing came next. Today, the combination of the two movements has resulted in a safer, cleaner, and more pleasant city for both residents and visitors. 

Officer Kathleen Vonk of the Ann Arbor Police Department, is a 15-year street cop, and has been on bike patrol since 1993. She has taught at the International Police Mountain Bike Association's (IPMBA) Annual Conference since 1995, and is a lead instructor for IPMBA's Advanced Class. She has been a Board Member since 1997 and is a former board president. 

These articles first appeared in the April 2003 issue of Law & Order, www.lawandordermag.com.

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