By The Yakima Herald-Republic Editorial Board, November 12, 2018
Imagine you are a scofflaw — we know you’re not, of course, but just humor us for a moment — and you duck inside one of Yakima’s ill-lit alleys to do a drug deal and maybe even sample some of the product strictly as a quality-control measure.
You keep an eye out for a patrol car prowling the neighborhood, usually one of those hulking Fords, but you know a police officer behind the wheel can’t navigate a tight space. And even if he could suss out your position and sniff out the telltale acrid chemical stench of your drug of choice, the cop would have to park, exit the vehicle, adjust his gun belt and, most likely, hoof it pretty darn fast to catch you in flagrante and make an arrest. So you’re, like, safe to do business with impunity.
Now imagine the same criminal situation played out differently.
You’re lurking in the alley, exchanging illegal goods for legal tender, and you hear a faint whirring behind you. Suddenly, with stealth and rapidity, two bicycle patrol officers are upon you. Seeing your shadowy presence down the alley, and smelling evidence being ingesting, they hop off their specially-designed mountain bikes and put an end to your transaction.
Such a scenario has, indeed, played out in Yakima and in many other cities that have employed bicycle patrols. And, if acting police Chief Gary Jones has his way, citizens might be seeing more black-and-yellow-clad cops pedaling the beat on a routine basis, rather than simply serving as backup at big civic events such as parades and festivals.
We approve of Jones’ idea to expand bike patrols — and not just because the bike initiative’s costs are covered by a renewable federal grant. Equally important as ferreting out crime in cities nooks and alcoves is the impression that bike patrols are considerably more community-friendly.
Let’s present another scenario. Say you’re a small business owner on North First Street, and you’re sweeping your storefront before closing up for the night. You’ve had problems, recently, with the homeless and drug addicts, sometimes one in the same, hanging out overnight outside your business, leaving discarded needles and other detritus in their wake.
If a police cruiser goes by, with an officer riding high, encased behind a mass of steel and a wire cage, good luck trying to wave him down and express your concerns. Sure, you can phone the police department, but sometimes there’s a lag of hours or days between call and response. But if you’re sweeping up and a bike cop cruises by, she is likely to hit the hand brake as a matter of course and chat you up. This is what’s known as community policing, a major advantage to having police more visible and approachable.
That second scenario, by the way, actually took place — the first part, that is. At a community meeting two months ago to discuss the North First Street redevelopment project, a business owner imparted that story to City Council members and employees — including Jones — expressing frustration with drug addicts using his business as a drug den and how few would listen. That was when Jones, in response, first publicly floated the idea of increasing bicycle controls along the corridor, telling the assemblage it “is a good way for officers to interact with the community, rather than being in an iron cage going up and down the street.”
True, there is a tangible public-relations advantage to embedding bike patrols in neighborhoods. People see the faces — and during spring and summer months, the bare legs — of cops rather than having to squint through a tinted window to catch a glimpse as they drive past. And having more one-on-one communication with a cop can build trust and encourage wary citizens to report crimes.
But do bike patrols really work in curbing crime? Few studies have been undertaken, but a recent one published in Law and Order magazine by Chris Menton, an associate professor at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island, yielded promising results.
Researchers compared motor and bicycle patrol shifts in five cities with populations greater than 100,000. They found the average number of “contacts” with the public were 22.8 for bike patrol officers compared to 10.5 for motor patrol. Some contact, granted, was deemed “non-serious” (meaning speaking with citizens) but Menton added the number of “serious contacts” (arrests and crime scenes) were similar by bike as by car. This, despite the fact that motor patrol officers were given nine times the rate of radio calls than bike officers.
Explaining the advantage of bike patrols, Menton wrote, “The stealth of police bicycle patrols is … a distinct tactical advantage. This allows for more effective response. There is no time (for suspects) to hide the joint or the open container.”
There are disadvantages, Menton conceded. Bike cops obviously cannot participate in car chases, and even the most tricked-out bike is not equipped with an onboard computer to do quick license plate and ID checks, standard in a patrol car. But the biggest disadvantage of bike patrols, Menton said, is that they “can be forgotten and discounted by police administration.”
That doesn’t seem an issue here. Jones — a former bike cop himself in the late 1980s — seems intent on adding the whir of the derailleur to the bleat of a siren on the streets of Yakima.
Members of the Yakima Herald-Republic editorial board are Bob Crider and Sam McManis.