By T.J. Richardson, PCI # 139/EMSCI #010
IPMBA Vice President
San Antonio PD (TX)
The year is 1990. San Antonio, home to the famed Alamo, retains little of its past glory. Although people still come to steep themselves in history, they rarely linger. They drive their cars as close to the Alamo as possible, take the tour, and are on their way. Downtown is still home to a variety of businesses, but at 5:00pm, the sidewalks are rolled up and most everyone heads towards the growing suburbs. Those who do stay might begin to feel unsafe. The streets are dark, there are few pedestrians, and danger seems to lurk around every corner. In fact, crime rates have been high in this area for years with little hope that they will decrease. The police log book chronicles a variety of crimes, ranging from drunks to robberies and sexual assaults. The news reports further discourage "good" citizens from frequenting the downtown area.
In the face of all this, a group of determined citizens decide to fight back. A small band of downtown residents and business owners who have come together to form the Downtown Owners Association, now known as the Downtown Alliance, begin a journey down the road to revitalization. The members of the Downtown Alliance pledge their own funds to the effort, but they are not alone. The goal of bringing San Antonio back is shared by the city, which reels from the declining tax base and hopes to transform downtown from a forgotten landmark to a "crown jewel." Plans are formulated to transform the downtown area into a vibrant center of commerce and polish the lackluster riverwalk into an attraction even more popular than the Alamo itself.
As part of the revitalization effort rallied by the Downtown Alliance, the San Antonio Police Department established the Downtown Foot Patrol; forty-five men and women who would revive the concept of the "police beat," in which police officers patrol a small district in a visible and approachable manner. The goal of this seemingly old-fashioned way of policing appears to be quite simple: be visible enough that the good citizens feel safe and that the bad ones feel unwelcome. It is more complex than that, of course, because a beat officer is very approachable and quickly becomes a part of the community.
It is a great beginning, but there is something missing; a void between the closeness and rapport of the beat officer and the speed of the cruiser. A popular entertainment district on the edge of the foot patrol beat needs the beat officers to get there faster and give them better coverage. One of the business leaders there jokingly scoffs, "if we gave you bicycles, would you get here faster?" There is a small burst of laughter, but as the laughter dies, a silence falls over the table with both business leaders and police officers fixed in thought. Could bicycles work? There was talk of bike patrols being used in a city in the northwest, but San Antonio is far too conservative and old-world for such an unorthodox idea. But the Downtown Alliance offers to buy the equipment if the police will give it a try.
A pilot project begins with five bicycles and a handful of officers trained to ride them. The downtown thugs and gang members laugh as big, strong police officers don shorts and white helmets. Curious tourists point at the strange sight, and the business owners watch in anticipation. Within days, the laughter of the thugs turns to cries of panic. They run, but to no avail, because the bike officers are highly mobile, silent, and agile enough to follow the bad guys into the nooks and crannies that characterize the downtown streets. An all-out campaign against crime is launched, and it begins to work. The Foot & Bike Patrol, working in concert with the members of the business community and public and private investors, has begun to make a startling difference.
Fast forward to 1995. Anyone who visited San Antonio a mere five years ago would be amazed. The streets are clean. More restaurants and shops line the San Antonio River, and it is "the place to be" on Friday nights. Several downtown buildings have been transformed into new shops and residences. A state-of-the-art shopping mall is erected where once dilapidated buildings stood and tourists wander far beyond the limits of the Alamo. There are still some empty buildings, but downtown is becoming a desirable place to work and play. Hotels are cropping up to serve the increasing number of tourists and conventioneers. Police officers seem to be everywhere on bicycles as only five of the downtown officers still walk. They are talking to residents and business owners, walking or pedaling around town, and answering the question, "where is the Alamo?" what seems like a million times a day. Crime rates have dropped across the board and the nature of the offenses has shifted to more petty ones. The Downtown Foot & Bike Patrol has played a significant role in the transformation and has been enthusiastically embraced by the members of the Downtown Alliance.
Back to the present: 2002. The revitalization of downtown San Antonio has been, by all accounts, a resounding success. The popular Riverwalk stretches for a mile or more and attracts throngs of people, both day and night; over two million people each year (Source: Paseo del Rio Association). It is often impossible to secure a table at a riverfront restaurant without a reservation or a long wait. As a whole, San Antonio is attracting visitors in record numbers - an estimated 8 million visitors in 1997 and growing so fast in recent years that an accurate count is difficult to obtain.
San Antonio, with its historic Alamo and beautiful Riverwalk, has become the #1 tourist destination in Texas, and the ninth most popular destination in the United States (Source: San Antonio Convention & Visitors Bureau). Even with the 17% increase in downtown office space between 1995 and 2000, available space is scarce and what space is available commands a premium rent. (Source: San Antonio Business Journal). Very few empty buildings remain as they are being bought up and transformed at a feverish pace. Nineteen new hotels have been built in the downtown area since 1995 - a 75% increase in hotels and a 43% increase in hotel rooms - and still the occupancy rate hovers at an impressive 61%. In 1995, visitors occupied over 4600 rooms per night; today, that number is over 5700 (Source: San Antonio Downtown Alliance).
The Downtown Foot & Bike Patrol is still busy. The concept has grown past the inner city boundaries to include every substation and every neighborhood in San Antonio. There are now some 400 trained bike officers and a fleet of over 300 bikes, maintained by a full-time civilian mechanic. They are still seen on every street corner downtown, and even a woman walking alone in the evening can feel safe in most places.
Despite the influx of thousands of more people downtown to work, visit or play, the rate of crime has continued to decline in most categories. Most occurrences of disturbance consist of petty assaults from the bar crowd dispersing late or the occasional vehicle being broken into to lift brightly colored shopping bags. The officers of the Downtown Bike Patrol continue their vigil and fight crime in places unreachable by their motorized counterparts. Most business leaders and residents agree that the Downtown Foot & Bike Patrol has been one of the single most influential factors for growth and industry. They also agree that without the foot and bike patrol, problems would be highly prevalent and the deterioration of downtown would begin instantly.
As San Antonio reaches its saturation point, the Downtown Patrol faces new challenges in devising ways to keep crime from tarnishing the city's new-found jewel. If they demonstrate the same spirit and determination of a decade ago, they will find a way.
|Type of Crime||1990||1995||1997||2001|
|Source: San Antonio PD|
(C) 2002 IPMBA. This article first appeared in the Fall 2002 issue of IPMBA News.