Bike patrol, more officers key factors in PPD’s crime fighting strategy

By Shelbie Harris, Idaho State Journal, May 17, 2018Top of Form

Pocatello police patrolman and lead bike instructor Kevin Nielsen, right, and Blaine County Sheriff’s Deputy Andrew Schiers ride their bikes through a slalom course set up at Holt Arena in Pocatello on Thursday afternoon. Both officers are International Police Mountain Bike Association certified and are training other officers from around the region. Jordon Beesley/Idaho State Journal

POCATELLO — After responding to more than 24,000 different calls last year, the Pocatello Police Department is using a proactive approach to take an even larger bite out of crime in 2018 and beyond.

As a means to provide additional security for Gate City residents, the Pocatello Police Department has requested to hire two additional patrolmen in October and will employ the use of at least five bicycle patrolmen throughout the summer.

“We’re looking at the future and the future growth of the city,” Pocatello Police Chief Scott Marchand said about the focus on increased patrol efforts. “We haven’t requested to add any new positions in the last six years and we have the Northgate project coming up. We’re asking for two new positions so that we’re not in a place where we are asking for 10 or 20 officers at one time.”

Currently, the Pocatello Police Department employs 91 sworn officers. But with conflicting schedules, vacation times and officers on leave for various reasons, Marchand said the two additional officers will put the department in a place to have up to 93 officers, so that all 91 officers would be available most of the time.

In comparison to what the FBI recommends — 1.8 officers per 1,000 people — a total of 93 sworn police officers would put the Pocatello Police Department just six officers shy of the recommendation to have 99 officers per 55,000 people.

Though the Pocatello Police Department is lucky to have such a tremendous amount of support from the community, according to Marchand, it has become more and more difficult to hire new police officers.

“People look at what’s going on across the country and it’s not like it used to be for hiring policemen,” Marchand said. “We used to have 100 people come and take our tests and work to become a police officer and now we have about 30 to 35 people. And once you get through the background checks, there have been times where there are only nine or 10 on a list to hire from. The world has definitely changed.”

Several factors contribute to the arduous process of finding well-qualified people to suit up in blue every day and swear an oath to protect and serve the civilian population. Some of these factors include poor pay, long hours and the public scrutiny that comes when the actions of a police officer are questioned.

Another factor that might play a minor role in the aspect of hiring police officers is the relatively recent change to Idaho’s open carry laws, Marchand said.

“When any resident in the state of Idaho can legally carry a concealed firearm, most people are going to take advantage of that,” Marchand said. “Most people are responsible firearm owners but open carry does put more guns out on the street. We are running across more guns in our daily duties than we used to before you had to have a permit.”

Marchand continued, “Our approach hasn’t changed in the 35 years I’ve been on the force. Everybody has a weapon until you absolutely know they don’t, but I think more guns on the street might play a little bit into the difficulty of hiring police officers.”

A growing number of attacks against law enforcement and instances where officers are involved in shooting suspects plays a much larger role, however, according to Marchand.

“At the end of the day, people just say it’s not worth it,” Marchand said about attacks on police officers and officer-involved-shootings. “Stuff like that makes it real tough to want to be a police officer.”

In terms of an increased focus on bike patrols, Kevin Nielsen, the mountain bike instructor with the Pocatello Police Department, and Andrew Schiers with the Ketchum police division of the Blaine County Sheriff’s Office, spent much of Thursday afternoon training a handful of Pocatello police officers and Fort Hall Tribal Casino security personnel on policy and technique of patrolling on a bike.

Nielsen said all participants of the mountain bike patrol training will receive a certification from the International Police Mountain Bike Association.

“What we are doing is bringing back our patrolmen on mountain bikes to protect different areas of Pocatello,” Nielsen said. “In the past, these patrols were centered around our bar districts and in the Old Town Pocatello area. Now we are trying to reach out into all sections of town.”

What we have found is that mountain bikes can be used as a tool as well as another mode of transportation, Nielsen added.

“We also find that the officer on a bike is much more approachable,” Nielsen said. “People are a lot more likely to come up and converse with an officer who is on a bike compared to those in a patrol car, who might seem intimidating.”

Bike patrols are one part community policing effort and one part tool in the arsenal of a police officer.

“The bike can be completely stealthy,” Nielsen said. “We can come up on a crime in progress such as a vehicle burglary and the bad guys are usually looking for this big police car with lights so they don’t really expect to see a police officer on a bike. We also use the bikes for special events. You will see a lot more bike officers during the parades controlling crowds or preventing kids from running out into the roads.”

The terrain of Pocatello is another advantage to using more bike patrolmen, Nielsen said.

“If we need to get somewhere fast we are going to use a car but in cases where we are looking for a missing person, then a bike comes in handy because you can’t put a patrol car on the paved trails up at Sacajawea Park. The same principle applies to the dirt trails throughout the region. We’ve had cases before where there have been kids lost up by ISU and the bike allows us to get around much quicker than a foot patrol would allow.”

In addition to the request for two new sworn officers and an increased focus on bike patrols, Marchand said the department has requested to hire a dispatcher, stenographer and records clerk.

While he is unsure if all the requests will be approved by Pocatello Mayor Brian Blad and the Pocatello City Council, Marchand commended Blad and the council for their continued support throughout the process.

“We have to start growing,” Marchand said. “We are more than very blessed to work in this community, and the council and mayor have been really great to us. We’re just trying to get ahead of things and make sure the department grows in the right ways.”

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