by Officer Kirby Beck, Coon Rapids Police Department
Near the end of the 19th century, many large police departments used bicycle patrols as a regular part of their police function. An 1896 study by the Pittsburgh Police Department reported, “after preliminary testing, it is apparent that one cycle-mounted policeman is worth two on foot.” These early bike squads rode heavy, one-speed bikes with simple brakes. They wore heavy wool uniforms with long trousers and topcoats. Some wore canvas leggings to keep their trousers free of chain grease and prevent their pant cuffs from becoming entangled in the chain. At that time, the use of bikes was a sign of a progressive police department. However, with the advent of the automobile and the radio-equipped patrol car, police bicycling faded into obscurity.
In 1987, Seattle became the first city in the United States to put a full-time squad of police officers back on bikes. Many departments around the country soon followed Seattle’s lead, and a resurgence of the bicycle patrol began. Police officers in shorts and bike helmets soon became a common sight around the country.
Bike patrols today are more popular and effective than ever, and appear to be here to stay. The reasons for the increasing use include the community oriented policing movement, the availability of specialized bike patrol training, and the flexibility and comfort of the mountain bike and related equipment.
Since the revival of policing by bike, uniform and equipment manufacturers have partnered with local police agencies and national organizations like the International Police Mountain Bike Association (IPMBA) to develop products which meet the expanding needs of bike officers. These specialized products are designed to increase the effectiveness of the bike-mounted officer. Some innovations have been so successful that they are working their way into main stream policewear. For instance, a knowledgeable observer can easily spot bike patrol jackets on non-bike officers in agencies around the country. Some were even seen at “Ground Zero” in New York City.
There are a variety of mountain bikes on the market representing a wide range of prices and quality. Equipping a bike properly for police work can confusing for those new to bike patrol; therefore, several companies offer pre-assembled packages marketed as Police Special bikes. These all feature good-quality, rugged frames, usually aluminum, in a choice of white, black or blue. All come equipped with wheels durable enough to withstand constant pounding against urban obstacles such as potholes, curbs, parking blocks and stairs.
The package price of the bikes typically includes all the necessary components, such as the derailleurs, brakes, hubsets, and drivetrain. Like the bike frames, components are available in models of varying quality and price ranges. To keep prices down, most police packages use a combination of good -- but not top -- quality hubs, brakes, and cranksets. However, they generally feature a higher end rear derailleur, like a Shimano Deore LX or XT, with either 24 or 27 speed hubs. All come equipped with smooth, roadworthy tires. Several police models include rear racks and rear-mount kickstands as standard equipment, an excellent addition, as that equipment is required for police patrol use.
It is possible to purchase and use bikes from local bike shops that are not “police package” bikes. In order to get the quality and durability necessary to withstand the rigors of policing, the price of the bike, including components, will be at least $700-$800. Bikes of lower price and lesser quality are built primarily for recreational use, not for hard use day in and day out. Some departments attempt to use “bargain” or recovered bikes for their bike patrols. They soon discover that the repair costs often exceed the original cost of a higher-quality bike. Typically, it is necessary to add or swap tires and accessories. With the addition of equipment such as a lighting system and a rear rack and trunk bag, the average price of a fully equipped police bike is about $1,200.
Several features differentiate police bikes from standard mountain bikes, which are equipped for off-road applications. Standard mountain bikes typically have heavily lugged tires. Because police bikes are used mostly on paved surfaces, they require a smoother tread tire to provide greater traction with very little noise. The typical mountain bike comes with a handlebar stem that positions the rider in a low, aerodynamic position. A police bike needs a stem with a higher rise and shorter reach. Such a stem affords an upright position, which aids the officer’s vision and prevents equipment from digging into his or her waist. Several police package bikes use a silent hub, designed to eliminate the clicking noise that is heard when a multi-speed bike coasts, on the rear wheel.
Mountain bikes are available with either front or full suspension systems. A bike equipped with a suspension fork only is called a “hard-tail,” because there is no shock absorption at the rear of the bike. Suspension forks work by using a combination of devices to absorb shock and rebound the fork to its normal position. Front suspension uses a combination of air, oil, elastomers, and springs. While one side of the fork absorbs the impact, the other side provides the rebound.
Suspension, especially in the front, is an officer safety feature. It can prevent falls – and injuries – because it absorbs large and small bumps and vibrations. It may also reduce repetitive stress injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome.
Some departments use more complicated, full-suspension bikes known as “soft-tails.” These bikes were developed to provide off-road and downhill racers with greater control and speed. The urban areas frequented by bike officers rarely challenge riders to the extent of off-road racing, so a suspension fork will suffice for most bike officers. A “soft-tail” can cost nearly twice as much as a “hard-tail;” however, departments with full-time bike officers may find that the additional comfort provided by full suspension is worth the added expense. Those officers spend more hours in the saddle than the average recreational cyclist, and the suspension helps reduce wear and tear on their bodies.
Anyone who has ever ridden a bike understands the importance of a bike saddle in a rider’s comfort. Recent studies have shown a correlation between bike saddles and impotence, especially in cyclists who spend long hours on the bike. Ergonomic bike saddles are available which are designed to minimize or eliminate pressure to the nerves and blood vessels of the genitalia. These usually have voids or cut-outs in the middle of the saddle. In the interest of occupational safety and health, it is advisable to equip police bikes with these pressure-reducing saddles.
A very important, but often ignored, safety item for police bikes is the pedal retention system. Pedal retention devices keep the rider’s feet from slipping off the pedals. They help the rider maintain control, especially when clearing obstacles, and prevent him from slipping off the saddle and landing painfully upon the frame’s top tube. Common pedal retention devices include toe clips (with or without straps), canvas-like loops called PowerGrips and clipless pedal systems.
Clipless pedals require special cycling shoes equipped with recessed cleats in the soles. The pedal traps the cleat, much like a ski binding. It provides a secure grip on the pedal, yet allows the rider to exit very quickly. It may take some time for a rider to learn to use them safely; therefore, the skill should be mastered off-duty. The downside of a clipless system is that as soles wear down, the cleats can “click” as the officer walks, and may become slippery when the officer is running.
Bike Patrol Uniforms
Patrolling by bike patrol is a physical, often harsh, outdoor activity. As a result, uniforms must be constructed to block the wind and protect against the rain and cold, yet provide ventilation to a perspiring officer’s body. Jackets and pants must be designed and sized to be comfortable and effective while the officer is bent forward, gripping a handlebar and pedalling. But bike-specific clothing is not just about comfort. In extreme heat and cold, proper bike uniforms can prevent heat or cold-related illness or injury.
Cyclists can generate an extra 10 to 15 degrees of body heat while riding. In hot weather, an improperly hydrated or ventilated cyclist can easily fall victim to heat exhaustion or heat stroke. An officer wearing body armor may be especially susceptible, a factor that must be taken into account when establishing a uniform standard. Wearing shorts instead of long pants is imperative in hot weather. Being permitted to use a waterfilled backpack – like those made by Camelbak and Blackhawk – may be an important health consideration for bike patrol officers.
In cold weather, the heat generated by cyclists is a mixed blessing. On one hand, it can allow the cyclist to stay warmer while wearing less insulated clothing. On the other hand, perspiration dampens clothing and causes the body to lose heat faster and feel chilled sooner. Some items, such as cotton turtlenecks, may seem warm, but once sweaty, will work against the officer. Synthetic fabrics such as Coolmax, polypropylene and polar fleece, which will not hold moisture from perspiration, are a better choice for bike officers. If the fabric next to the skin is dry, the officer will stay warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer.
Specialized bike patrol uniforms are made of high-tech fabrics intended to both transport perspiration away from the body and protect the wearer from the environment. They are often made of specially engineered fabrics such as Coolmax, Supplex, and stretch knits. About eight companies produce high quality uniforms designed with input from bike officers to make them functional, fashionable, and comfortable.
Bike jackets, shirts and pants are designed differently than their standard uniform counterparts. Sitting on seams is uncomfortable, so bike pants and shorts minimize seams and place them in areas that do not have direct contact with the saddle. Bike pants hug the leg at the bottom to prevent entanglement in the chain, and often have a built-in chamois pad. The uninitiated believe that the chamois is there to provide padding between rider and saddle. Its real job is to absorb moisture and reduce chafing and saddle sores.
Bike uniform pants and shorts should be made of a material that dries quickly after getting wet from rain or sweat. Most pants and shorts are made from materials such as Supplex and other stretch knits. Some pant fabrics are lined with a hydrophilic film like Gortex or Ultrex, which makes them waterproof and wind resistant. Several companies use imported stretch knits of varying weights that are water resistant and windproof without laminates. Some bike pants are available with zip-off legs to double as shorts.
Jackets can be purchased with or without insulated liners. Nearly all jackets are lined with wickable, breathable material to help them stay dry inside. Jackets are typically available in materials like treated Supplex, or a Supplex-like material laminated with breathable, waterproof film like Gortex. The former is less expensive; the latter is more versatile and effective. Some jackets feature removable sleeves which can be easily stowed in a rack bag.
The standard riding position requires that bike patrol jackets and shirts be cut and sized so they are roomy across the shoulders, with slightly longer sleeves and back. Jackets should be ordered large enough to accomodate multiple layers.
While bike uniforms have to be comfortable and breathable, they must also be readily identifiable as police uniforms. Many bike officers wear colors not worn by the regular patrol officers, such as yellow or white shirts that make them more visible in congested traffic. Bike patrol jackets are the most dramatically different from standard uniforms, with color combinations such as yellow or royal blue over navy blue. These brighter, constrasting colors enable motorists to see bike officers sooner. Non-traditional shirts and jackets should use shoulder emblems and POLICE stencils both front and back, to clearly identify the wearer as a police officer.
Another consideration in uniform selection is appearance. Specialized bike patrol shirts come in polo-like pullovers and traditional button-up styles, in both long and short sleeve. Polo shirts have proven to be popular among bike officers, who like the comfort and the “softer,” more approachable look. Polos made by uniform companies usually use Coolmax or other wicking fabrics similar to those used for cycling jerseys. For those who want a more traditional look, several manufacturers provide shirts with a Class A design. Made of lightweight Coolmax or other fast wick-and-dry fabrics, these shirts have epaulets, pockets with flaps, traditional collars and sewn-in creases. They come in both high visibility and traditional uniform colors.
Several uniform shoe manufacturers make cycling shoes designed for bike officers. They have narrower soles than athletic shoes, so they slide easily into toe clips. Most are compatible with clipless pedal systems. Bike shoes have stiff soles to keep the foot from bending during hours of pedaling. Injuries such as Plantar Fascitis can occur if proper shoes is not used. Cycling shoes should be a mandatory uniform item for bike officers, especially those who operate full-time.
Many bike patrol units operate at least occasionally at night or under poor lighting conditions. Bikes should be equipped, at minimum, with a 10-watt white front light and a red rear light, steady or flashing. It is worthwhile, however, to outfit a bike with a more powerful lighting system, most of which are durable, rechargeable, and incredibly bright. NiteRider is one company that produces innovative and dependable lights. The NightRider light, which can be found on certain police package bicycles, can be used as headlights, warning lights or in combinations. NiteRider also makes a 120 decibel hi-lo “siren” and a daylight-visible LED taillight.
Communication is essential to the bike officer, who may at times be more vulnerable than an officer in a patrol car. Until recently, bike officers have been limited to using portable radios and cellular phones. However, communications technology is finally downsizing to be practical for bike officers. Palm size devices like Datamaxx’s CyberFORCE now provide access to NCIC and DMV information previously available only on larger mobile data terminals. This type of handheld technology is only just beginning. Communications technology is ready to meet the changing needs of bike patrol officers.
Equipment for bike patrol has come a long way since bikes were first used for policing in the 1890’s. Today’s technological advances will continue to make bike patrol an even more practical and effective tool for law enforcement into the new millennium.
Kirby Beck has 27 years of law enforcement experience in Coon Rapids, MN. He is a certified Police Cyclist Instructor, Instructor Trainer, and immediate past president of the International Police Mountain Bike Association (IPMBA). He is one of the original authors of The Complete Guide to Police Cycling.
This article appeared in the April 2002 issue of Law and Order.