Bike patrol prepares to ride again

By Randy Petersen, Post Bulletin, June 29, 2017

Rochester MN:  James Marsolek is slowly rolling out his latest pursuit. The Rochester police officer hopes to be part of a revived bike patrol, but for now it's a solo effort.

Marsolek has been making his presence known, riding along the Rochesterfest parade route Saturday and attending bike rodeos this week at Gage Elementary School, which sits in the region of the city he patrols in a squad car as part of the department's Community Action Team.

"I've made a lot of contacts with people and kids," he said of his first weeks of bike patrol since taking five days of International Police Mountain Bike Association Training this month.

With training in hand, Marsolek convinced his superiors to use seized funds to buy a bike and equipment to kick-start a bike patrol. The department still has equipment from the bike patrol that disbanded 15 to 20 years ago, but most of it is outdated and safety equipment has expired.

Originally, Sgt. Jon Turk, who leads the Community Action Team, said the goal was to start next year with hopes of finding funds in the 2018 city budget for a complete patrol, which could include at least 10 patrol officers and six community service officers.

Officers wouldn't spend all their time of bikes, but they noted it would offer an option for special events and when quiet flexibility is needed.

The wait for a bigger patrol isn't likely needed since Olmsted Public Health staff has stepped in with a proposed $7,500 mini-grant to fund training and equipment for four more officers this year. The funds will come from the Statewide Health Improvement Partnership, which targets efforts to create programs that encourage healthy lifestyles.

Kari Etrheim, Olmsted County public health education manager, said the bike patrol offers a perfect opportunity. "It's an awesome partnership," she said, noting funding is going through final steps for approval.

Etrheim said Marsolek's community engagement efforts in his first weeks are prime examples of how the patrol can encourage others to live healthier lives.

Turk also sees the benefit of engagement, as well. "It's exciting to see the excitement the community has for us to be out on bikes," he said.

Of course, the police department also sees potential for dealing with rising concerns in areas like downtown Rochester, where denser populations can hinder persona contact.

"Patrolling with squad cars doesn't always bring you in contact with the public," Rochester Police Chief Roger Peterson said, noting changes in the city make reviving the patrol ideal.

Turk, who was part of the original bike patrol, said a population shift was also part of the reason the first patrol went away. At the time, patrol officers were being called to various parts of the city, requiring quick responses that weren't possible on bikes.

"A bicycle has limited response range and it wasn't working with where Rochester was with its policing," he said, noting limited staffing also affected response times. "They just weren't a good method for what needed to be done at the time."

Now, he said changing needs make them more feasible.

For Marsolek, the goal is to use his new bike as much as possible as he waits for some of his fellow officers to join once training and equipment is funded, which is expected sometime this summer.

He said it offers flexibility as he carries it on a rack behind his squad car.

As he waits for more potential patrol members, he's also looking for ways to improve the operation, such as finding bike racks that allow better access needed equipment. Additionally, he said some department policy changes are likely needed.

"We're learning as we go," he said. "We find little things as we go."

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