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Pedaling into Community Policing

Pedaling into Community Policing

by Christopher Davala, Maryland State Police

During the 1990's, police agencies became increasingly involved with community policing, a trend that continues today. Community policing can be described as a proactive approach to crime-fighting, designed to reduce crime, disorder, and the fear of crime. By placing an officer in a community on a long-term basis, residents become comfortable and familiar with the officer, which typically opens the lines of communication. Community policing uses direct involvement by officers to both address specific issues and to deter crime. Interaction with community residents is essential to this process; therefore, cmmunity policing officers perform a wide range of services, from educating citizens on crime prevention to gathering information that results in the apprehension of criminals.

Community policing officers also typically focus on reaching specific populations within the community, such as children and the elderly. Through continued contact and visibility, community policing officers have a significant impact upon the day-to-day lives of residents. The success of this type of policing in combating crime has led law enforcement agencies in communities of all sizes - urban, suburban, and rural - to focus on developing closer relationships with the citizens within their operational boundaries. One way to develop such relationships is to deploy police officers on bicycles.

Like its sister agencies around the country, the Maryland State Police has been confronted with the challenge of developing a citizen-police partnership. Unlike many other state police departments, however, the State Police has experimented with using mountain bikes as part of its approach to community policing. The first bike patrol program was founded in Frederick County, Maryland, as part of the "Resident Trooper" program. (Under the Resident Trooper program, a town that requires police protection but cannot afford its own department requests that state troopers be assigned to serve and protect its limits.) The other bike patrol is located on Maryland's Eastern Shore, in a county rated as the poorest in the state. Unemployment is high, but there is a well-established employment of fishermen in the community. The area attracts a large number of transients and tourists , especially during the summer months, and is home to numerous residents who commute to metropolitan Washington, DC, and Baltimore. The county boasts waterfront on three sides, home to numerous influential property owners.

Holiday and summer travel times bring extra concerns to the region, as travelers use U.S. Route 13 to reduce their north-south transit time. This highway is also heavily used by drug couriers as well as the black market cigarette cartels in New York and New Jersey. The limited use of a cigarette tax in Virginia is a strong lure for the illegal purchase and sale of cigarettes up north. This mix of circumstances demands a varied approach to policing.

The Maryland State Police is the agency with primary responsibility for emergencies in the region. The State Police maintains a full service barrack. There are two towns within the jurisdiction, each with its own very small police department. Historically, there has been a smooth working relationship between the State Police and the township agencies, and a clear memorandum of understanding concerning "back-up" governs incident response. The local Sheriff's department is overworked with court paper services and special assignments, so the agencies find it necessary and beneficial to work together.

The abovementioned factors come together to create the need for an unusual approach to fighting crime. The area has several regional "cells" which are characterized as high crime neighborhoods under the State of Maryland's "Hot Spot" program. This program, designed to assist communities plagued with criminal activity, not only targets crime, but also works to build an infrastructure for strengthening the community. Schools are offered funding to create after-school programs; church groups are encouraged to conduct alcohol and tobacco usage education. Data on outstanding warrants, past offenders, and trouble spots is readily shared between the health department, juvenile services, parole and probation, and local police agencies. This allows for a free flow of information to assist the community and address its needs. Designation as an official "Hot Spot" allows funding and other resources to be diverted to the region.

Two locations in this jurisdiction have been recognized as "Hot Spots" because of high rates of drug use and aggravated assault. Before the advent of targeted enforcement, it was not uncommon for these areas to experience a shooting or assault with a deadly weapon nearly once a shift. The signs of cocaine and marijuana use were obvious, and drug activity was frequently observed. The dealers and buyers, savvy to motorized approach by officers and state troopers, moved locations regularly. This is where the bike patrol seed was fertilized.

The concept of using police on bikes was a new one to the regional command staff, but after a series of meetings and discussions regarding the pros and cons, the idea was accepted. Despite its acceptance by the regional command, the bike patrol had a number of obstacles to overcome before it could be deployed, such as staffing, funding, and operations. Information, such as model policies and procedures and "success stories", was obtained from bike patrol units from around the country. This information was used to demonstrate that officers on bikes can be as effective, if not more so, than those in cars, and more cost-effective, too.

Funding was one of the easier challenges to meet. Through the efforts and determination of the organizer, the financial challenges were met one by one. The bikes were obtained through the "Hot Spot" grant. Helmets were purchased by the local state's attorney office. The local police department donated bike racks for the patrol cars. Saddlebags and lights were the gift of a local bike shop. It was clear that the community supported the bike patrol concept and wanted it to succeed, so after clearing a few other administrative hurdles, the bike unit was born.

It did not happen overnight, however. In addition to manpower and equipment considerations, issues of safety, communications, and operational limits needed to be addressed. Various policies and procedures were put into effect. It was determined that the troopers would always ride in pairs and have the support of motorized patrol units from the sheriff's office. Radio communications would be handled by the county 911 services. Distance limitations would be overcome by using the "park-and-ride" concept (bike rack-equipped patrol cars). Finally, it was determined that the team would be used to target illegal drug activity and juvenile crime, in addition to striving for closer contact with citizens. After a year of careful planning, Maryland's second State Police bike patrol unit rolled out onto the streets.

The first ride, during daylight hours, afforded the bike-mounted troopers the opportunity to become familiar with the local trouble spots and for the community to become familiar with them. There were a few snickers and looks of disbelief, but within a matter of hours, the troopers had responded to four calls for service and backed up two town officers on domestic violence reports. They were off and running.

On the second night of patrol, the bike officers observed and made two arrests for drug possession. A noise violation approach resulted in the arrest of four subjects for various reasons, including cocaine possession. Another stopped vehicle turned out to be stolen, and two of its occupants were wanted for violent crimes committed. It was a productive weekend. Reaction in the community was mixed -- the "good" citizens welcomed the bikes; the "bad guys" went on the run. The surrounding jurisdictions experienced an increase in crimes as the bikes flushed out the criminals, and within the first month, it was clear that the bike patrol was having a positive effect on crime. The bike officers quickly became a deterrent to crime, which enabled them to take a proactive approach to serving the needs of the community. The ability to pedal up to citizens sitting on their front porches caused people who would never have dreamed of approaching a police car to become friendly. Citizens welcomed the bikes into their neighborhoods.

The incorporation of the bike patrol into the community-policing avenue of the jurisdiction opened a floodgate of information. The patrol officers were able to become intimately familiar with their communities. They quickly learned who lives, works, and plays in the troubled spots of the township and county. They began to be more successful at reaching out to the youth in the neighborhoods. The bikes allowed them cross previously insurmountable barriers. In the words of one of the bike officers:

On bike patrol one day, I encountered a gentleman who was raking what he had of a lawn. I stopped to say hello, hoping to lower the barriers between us. This particular gentlemen was consistently seen watching the corner drug deals and illegal activity, but he was always scared to give us information. On this particular day, he hurdled that obstacle. At first I thought he was going to walk away, but as I pedaled nearer, he walked to his front porch and removed his work gloves. As I stopped at the entrance to his property, he returned from the porch, smiled, and introduced himself.

Removing my helmet and sunglasses, I returned the pleasantry and extended my hand. As he took my hand, I felt a piece of paper press against my palm. I looked at him, and he just smiled. We continued the greeting without mention of the transfer. After a precious and informative ten-minute conversation, I donned my helmet and rode away. A short distance away from my new-found friend, I pulled the paper from my pocket. The note revealed a list of names and license plate numbers he had seen transiting the area. That paper contained things he was too afraid to say out loud. I am sure that he was only able to breach the wall of concern and fear because I was easy to access on the bike.

By using bikes, community policing officers are able to take a proactive stance and focus on the quality of their response. Police cyclists are capable of seeing, hearing, or smelling a problem and making contact with those involved well before their fellow patrol car officers are aware of the situation. For instance, an officer may encounter a domestic situation before it erupts. Or he may be called upon to hide himself and conduct surveillance for drugs or other illegal activity. Officers assigned to bike patrol may find themselves having pictures taken with children during a special event, playing pick-up basketball with area juveniles, or sitting on a porch, talking with an elderly shut-in. Bikes allow officers to get involved.

In addition to fulfilling their traditional role of enforcing the rules of highway travel, state troopers are constantly called upon to assist the needy, help the confused, point youth in the right direction, and remove the temptation to infringe upon the rights and privileges of others. As the future fast approaches, there is a need to discover new ways to combat the ever-increasing flow of illegal activity. Since the inception of the bike patrol three years ago, crime numbers have dropped, but not just because the bike officers are always out there "chasing bad guys."

They have dropped because the bike officers have become more involved with schools, church groups and other members of the community, seeking out ways to address their needs and concerns. They have dropped because the bike patrol officers serve as positive role models for the area youth. They have dropped because a close group of members within the community want to see the program work. The bike patrol allows officers to be approached with community problems. It helps build safe neighborhoods. And it is a source of great personal satisfaction to the officer who gains the trust and friendship of the citizens he serves. 

Trooper First Class Christopher Davala joined the Maryland State Police in 1998 and is assigned to the Princess Anne Barrack in Somerset County, Maryland. Prior to becoming a state trooper, he served in the U.S. Coast Guard and was involved with drug interdiction operations, including seizures of 72 tons of marijuana and two tons of cocaine. Davala received his initial bicycle patrol certification through the International Police Mountain Bike Association (IPMBA) in 1999 and was certified as an IPMBA Police Cyclist Instructor in 2000. He organized the Princess Anne barrack's bike patrol unit and serves as its supervisor, and he has assisted with the formation of additional bike units within the MSP. He is also an instructor for the drug and alcohol awareness program REALITY. He regularly speaks to civic organizations, middle and high school health education classes, and scout programs about dealing with drugs, alcohol, peer pressure, and domestic violence. 

This article originally appeared in the April 2002 issue of Law and Order magazine, www.lawandordermag.com.

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