You'll need to be physically fit, self-motivated, and up for close contact with the public to thrive as a bike officer.
By Christian Bailey, April 6, 2016. This article appeared in the April issue of Police Magazine. http://www.policemag.com/channel/careers-training/articles/2016/04/how-to-join-a-bicycle-unit.aspx
Firearms training for bicycle officers is not just about weapons manipulation and accurate shooting. The training must also incorporate what to do with the bike and how to get to cover. (PHOTO: Scott Parr/IPMBA)
A good officer is one who demonstrates initiative, a good sense of ethics, respect for the law, great communication skills, and common sense. A great bicycle officer is all of these but also someone who has a strong service mentality, paramount knowledge of laws, a thirst for new knowledge, and someone who can adapt to change easily. If this describes you, your agency's bicycle unit might be a good fit.
Being a Bicycle Officer
Bicycle officers are often seen as the jacks-of-all-trades in a department. They can be seen doing outreach such as bicycle rodeos in school; playing after school in parks with kids; working liquor enforcement details; interfacing with local business owners, and conducting plainclothes operations, gang enforcement, and drug interdiction. Bicycle officers routinely are given tasks from city management that address quality-of-life issues in a given city or town. The boundaries of what a good bicycle officer can do are virtually limitless. Bicycle units are constantly evolving and changing assets within departments, and because these units can do so many things many more agencies are beginning to field them.
Bicycle patrols were initially created to combat the problems presented by traffic gridlock in growing cities, including the issue of how to get in and out of these congested areas. By nature of being on a bicycle and not in a closed patrol vehicle, these officers' citizen contacts increased. It was soon realized that these bicycle patrol details had to be done by officers who were looking to take an active role in their communities.
In a squad car you may drive through a neighborhood and miss something because of the sounds of the engine or radio, or because the windows are up. On a bicycle that is rarely the case. You can smell, taste, and feel everything that goes on. In a recent shooting call at my agency, bicycle officers were first to pinpoint the scene of the crime based on the proximity of the sound of the shot and the odor of gunpowder. Crimes in progress can be responded to quicker by bicycle officers as they are not tied to the asphalt road and can take less traveled routes.
A quote that I use during my instruction is, "The difference between a great athlete and a good athlete is that one has mastered the basics better than his or her competition." This holds true for many units but is magnified for a bicycle officer.
There is no cover on a bicycle. Officers on bicycles are left out to the elements much of the time and crimes are literally happening in front of their eyes. Around every turn an officer can be in a deadly force encounter and must use quick thinking to avoid potential tragedy.
Things happen more quickly and more readily on a bicycle based on the nature of patrol, so a good bicycle officer must have a mastery of basics. A great bicycle officer will also have top communication skills and good people skills. An officer who can talk with someone is almost preferred to someone who can knock someone down. The role of a bicycle officer is constantly changing and always exciting. Conversely, nothing beats good training and a willingness to learn something new every day.
Making the Cut
If you decide you want to join a bicycle unit, you'll need to prove you meet certain standards, beyond any agency-specific prerequisites such as the number of years you've been with your department or worked patrol.
First of all, being in good physical condition is a main requirement for joining this type of unit. Bicycle officers will sometimes have to ride miles to a call. Many agencies' bicycle units are also part of their search-and-rescue deployment. In this situation, especially, officers need to show up on scene in good physical condition so as not to underperform on the call at hand, or to become a burden themselves. For this reason, agencies have set physical fitness standards for their units, including testing and a standard of fitness for the officers.
A typical test for a bicycle unit would be a 1.5-mile bicycle threshold ride. At the end of the ride each officer is required to dismount the bicycle, perform a bicycle carry, and clear an obstacle, all within a predetermined time. The standard given time is generally a low estimate of the time it took all current officers on the unit to perform the test.
The physical portion is followed by a performance review of the officer's productivity at his or her current assignment. The role of the bike officer is very self-motivated, past productivity can help determine if an officer would be sufficiently productive while in the bicycle unit.
After the performance review an oral interview is conducted to determine eligibility. Through the oral interview you can see officers' true motivations, their efforts in wanting to come to the unit, and their preparation in testing for the bicycle unit. A continuing fitness program within the unit will ensure a physically fit unit and a team that works well together.
Training for Bicycle Patrol
Once you've passed muster, you'll need to train in the skills needed for this specialized type of work. There are a few programs throughout bike policing that look to train officers. Some of them are agency based and born that cover some skills and policy adaptations. None covers a wider breadth of material than the International Police Mountain Bike Association (IPMBA). IPMBA has really been the gold standard for agencies worldwide for police bicycle training. Many agencies that use a homegrown approach have used the principles and techniques that are contained within IPMBA's programs on a modified scale.
There are hundreds of instructors worldwide that have been taught and trained following the IPMBA standards and can provide this quality instruction to sworn and civilian police employees. The key component to the IPMBA training is that it is a standard that is set across its entire curriculum. If I were to travel from state to state, or country to country, I would not have to adapt to any shortcomings provided in other programs. The standard would be the same and the integration from agency to agency would be seamless. If there is an emergency across city or state lines, those who have practiced the same standard will be able to assemble without much confusion.
In 2001, when the Phoenix-based Arizona Diamondbacks won the World Series, there was some concern that rioting might boil over into other cities. Officers from neighboring cities enacted emergency procedures. Bicycle officers were paramount to these efforts. The biggest concern to us as officers is that when we deploy, are we going to be operating on the same page. Since the partnering agencies of that detail had all been trained under the same IPMBA program, multiple agencies came together seamlessly to provide professional and appropriate service without confusion.
The International Police Mountain Bike Association Police Cyclist School incorporates a variety of techniques and training. The course is challenging but provides a great start for advanced and beginner riders. The course covers such topics as night riding, contact and cover, repairs, and emergency vehicle operations for bicycles. Agencies like my own incorporate a firearms component and off-road riding to round out the week.
The recommended number of hours for training in a given course is 32 hours, though I have found through experience and time that a 40-hour course incorporating off-road riding and firearms training is what best meets the needs of the agencies I train. I have mentioned how officers on bicycles have an increased number of contacts throughout their day. The likelihood that they will encounter a deadly force encounter would follow the same logic that an increase in contacts could show an increase in deadly force encounters. The firearm training incorporates on- and off-the-bike drills that mimic real-life scenarios.
A contact with a subject may result in an officer falling off the bike or being caught astride the bicycle. It is not unlikely that bicycle officers would be caught in a contact where they are pushed to the ground and have to react with deadly force. The grounded drills help teach good muzzle control, as well as clearing the bicycle as an obstacle and utilizing other forms of cover and concealment. There is no portion of the bicycle that can be considered cover or concealment. So, teaching officers that they need to start looking for their next area of cover and concealment is stressed.
As all firearms training goes, it should be relevant, recent, and realistic. If you are just now incorporating a firearms portion into your training, seek out a trained instructor to provide guidance.
The final exercise in this course, the long ride, incorporates all of the obstacles and skills that have been demonstrated and practiced throughout the week into one ride. The officer will have to use all of these skills to avoid hazards and navigate the trail.
Mobile Field Force Deployment
Training doesn't stop with learning the basics. You'll be expected to master additional skills to meet the needs of your agency and jurisdiction. Officers in large cities have a longstanding history of incorporating the use of bicycles in their mobile field force deployment. Encounters requiring response by these regional, multi-agency teams are free flowing, fast moving, and often occur in very restricted areas. The organizers of current protests are using the urban environments to prevent use of large police vehicles. This makes a perfect case for the use of well-trained officers on bicycles. Bicycle Response Teams (BRTs) can be large or small, but all of them use the same training and tactics. The bikes are assumed to be less threatening but can cover more area and in a shorter amount of time.
As May Day protests erupted in cities across the United States, agencies were quick to react with large-scale vehicles and tactics. The media responded with claims of over policing. Not arguing the appropriateness of the usage, there is an alternative that has been hugely effective. Training bicycle officers in the use of mobile field force tactics allows officers to parallel the groups and provide outside coverage. When properly outfitted, bicycle officers can form a skirmish line using the bicycles as a "bike fence," which clearly delineates the line between protestors and police. Many examples can be seen in the Seattle Police Department's deployment of their Bicycle Response Teams in response to protests in their city.
In my agency's training, a Bicycle Response Team is considered a front line in a mobile field force operation. If the team is not providing a front line operation in that capacity, it can be used as a flanking mechanism and a crowd dispersing option.
Bicycle officers can serve in many other capacities as well. The use of bicycles in policing is only limited by one's ability to adapt them to routine patrol tasks.
For example, in my most recent training course, officers were tasked with looking at crime trends in their cities. Using their current models, I asked them how they could better respond using bicycles. The conversation always leads to areas that are plagued with property crimes. The current model is to stage vehicles throughout the area and provide coverage of moving targets around a specific area. Using bicycles as the model, officers can utilize plainclothes tactics to outfit officers with unassuming everyday bicycles.
These bicycles can be procured from your property and evidence personnel or donated from a local university that has a surplus of abandoned bicycles. Every officer is still equipped as their policy would dictate, i.e., firearm, badge, radio, handcuffs, etc. Now officers can ride through alleyways, hide in the shadows, and look for suspicious behavior in a more unassuming manner. The officers can either call in the activity to outside officers or can properly identify themselves and take action as necessary.
If using a plainclothes detail doesn't seem to work for your agency then you can saturate an area using uniformed bicycle officers. The goal is to make as many contacts in that neighborhood to educate on the crime trend. Using one method, saturation vs. plainclothes, in any given order can have a greater effect. It really just depends on the goal of the detail.
Taking on the Challenge
Bicycle patrol is a challenging detail that requires a good officer to become a great officer. You have to come to your job every day wanting to learn something new and make a good impression upon the public. It is dynamic and ever changing. It is rarely stale and can always be molded into something new to fit new trends.
Being part of my agency's bicycle unit for the past eight years has been nothing short of amazing. It takes a hard-working group of people to make it happen, with like-minded goals, and a constant desire to learn every day. Aristotle said it best: "Pleasure in the job puts perfection in the work." I have taught many officers from various agencies across the United States. It is a point of pride that I get to see the great work that they put forward and see agencies use bicycles as a way to reach out to their communities. It is a fantastic detail for those willing to take on the challenge.
Officer Christian Bailey has served with the Scottsdale (AZ) Police Department for 10.5 years, eight of those as part of the agency's bike unit. He is currently the agency's lead instructor and has thousands of instructor hours under his belt. His latest involvement with the International Police Mountain Bike Association was at the IPMBA National Conference in Chandler, AZ, in 2015.