Starting a Bike Patrol

by Lt. Tom Woods, Denton PD, TX

During the advent of the modern era of police bike patrol in the mid-to-late ‘80’s, law enforcement agencies exploring the idea of starting a bike unit encountered a dearth of information.  There were few existing units to provide information, and many departments anxious to get started were stalled in the process over important issues yet to be resolved.  Bike patrol was proving to be a valuable component of the budding community policing movement - with grant money available  – and some agencies took the leap, banking on what they thought they knew just to get a unit up and running.

The bike patrols that followed are grateful to those early pioneers for what has been learned from their successes and mistakes.  This article is based on an accumulation of that information from departments across the country and a decade of personal experience finding the answers to the myriad questions about bike patrol that have arisen over the years.   

At first glance, establishing a bike unit seemed to be a rather straightforward endeavor; just buy the bikes, find some volunteers and turn them loose on crime.  How hard could it be to put cops on bikes, right?  Well, unfortunately, there is far more to it than pure logistics and desire.  This reality was the impetus for the creation of the International Police Mountain Bike Association (IPMBA), the first “clearinghouse” for training and information exchange, by and for police bike officers.

Most of what was learned in the early days is now a given due in part to the advances in technologies in the bike, uniform, and related industries, but the collective experiences and knowledge of police officers and EMS riders has really set the bar for today’s new public safety bike units.  And although technology has changed greatly over the years, the basics of setting up and maintaining a bike unit remain the same.

Though it is not possible to cover in depth all aspects of starting a modern bike patrol in this article, the most frequently asked administrative questions will be addressed.   Despite its importance, funding will not be discussed as it is beyond the scope of this article.  

The first question many administrators ask officers trying to patrol on bikes is, “Why?”  In the “old days,” when the concept was new, justification was paramount as it seemed like a step backwards in a time of increasing computerization of law enforcement.   Today, police bike units have proven that they have many functions and can offer advantages over other modes of providing public safety services.

The most obvious is the cost effectiveness of bikes versus squad cars; for example, twenty fully equipped bikes can be purchased for the price of one police car.  Then there are health benefits to the riders that are indirectly passed on to the agency through less sick time used, more productivity, increased job satisfaction, etc.  The list goes on as the concept is applied through various deployment strategies.

Today, the biggest issue is balancing what the unit can accomplish given the available resources against the need for the unique functions of a bike patrol.  What can be expected from this investment in manpower and capital?  The answer flows from the needs of the department.  Bike patrols excel at street crimes and drug interdiction, stealth patrol against property crimes, and as high visibility and public access patrol to augment community-policing initiatives. 

Campuses across the country, along with parks departments and a growing number of fire departments and EMS agencies, are deploying bikes in increasing numbers.  Bike officers are even used on traffic details, employing hand-held, battery-operated radar units. 

Ask any veteran bike officer and he or she will have a story to tell about something they did on bikes that would not have seemed possible.  In essence, bikes are adaptable to a wide variety of functions and roles in modern public safety agencies. Careful planning and management of the unit can reap many rewards on many levels.

Deployment Strategies
In creating a bike unit or expanding an existing one, the possible deployment strategies vary according to needs and circumstances.  Bikes can be deployed on a part-time or full- time basis, utilized only for special projects or events, or serve as the officers’ sole mode of transportation for delivering police services. They can be integrated with regular patrol as call-driven elements or as stand-alone units not responsible for responding to calls for service.  Bike patrols can be high visibility crime deterrents in neighborhoods and around businesses or can be employed as specialized “stealth” units focusing on specific crimes in target areas.

Units’ successes and positive public feedback has fostered the growth of smaller bike units employing one or two officers doing basic patrol duties, to much larger forces with more varied duties and purposes.  Any agency that institutes a bike patrol must be prepared to respond to the requests from citizens who want the “bike officers in my neighborhood.”

Once the unit’s purpose is defined, it is easier to determine the capital outlay.  Basic costs include fully-equipped bikes, complete with rear racks and packs, and head and taillights.  Items carried on-bike include tool kits, pumps, spare tubes and patch kits. Outfitting the officers requires bike-specific uniforms, gunbelts, helmets, etc.  In addition, specialized equipment for job-specific duties might include radar guns, handheld computers, night vision scopes, or fully-equipped trauma kits. 

Maintenance costs range from a couple hundred dollars a year for a small or part-time unit, to thousands for larger, 24/7 fleets that require frequent (annual, bi-annual) replacement.  If fleet maintenance will be done in-house, the initial investment for bike-specific tools, work stands, a wheel-truing stand, and other essential items must be included.  The recurring costs for spare parts, lubricants, rags, and miscellaneous shop needs must also be considered.  A policy governing whether the officer/mechanic(s) work for overtime/comp-time or do the work as part of their duty day must be established; this issue has payroll and manpower implications.

If the maintenance chores are to be “jobbed out”, the cost of regularly scheduled periodic overhauls for each bike, along with general repairs as needed, should be part of the contract with the service provider, whether it is a local bike shop or individual contractor.

Which is more cost effective, in-house or outsource?  Again, this is determined by the individual department’s fiscal and manpower capacities.  However, there are some issues that must be considered.  Will in-house maintenance cause unexpected downtime for the bikes if the mechanics can’t get to the chores due to other responsibilities?  On the other hand, will the local bike shop mechanics stop what they are doing to work on a bike for an officer who needs it fixed right away?  The answer may be to train all bike officers to do their own maintenance: food for thought.

How long should the bikes be kept?  The factors to consider are: how often the bikes are ridden, the terrain and/or road conditions, and how the climate might affect the bikes.  For example, over time, hilly terrain puts more stress on all the components than relatively flat environments.  Likewise, dusty conditions (parks, off-road patrol areas) can shorten component life, while rain and harsh winter conditions can rust a steel bike frame and cause it to weaken.

The great unknown is how long a frame can last under the stresses of police riding.  The mountain bike is the foundation of the police bike, and is designed for civilian recreational riding, not for the rigors of around-the-clock patrol work.  The general consensus for bikes in use everyday is to replace them every three to five years.  There are exceptions; some departments replace every year, while others choose to rebuild multiple times.  Which is more cost effective?  Considering the liability of fielding bikes that could be dangerous to ride.  The bottom line is to invest in the highest quality bikes possible; they should last the longest.

Aside from the purchase of quality equipment, there is no expense more important than training.  To skimp on training is to put the entire program in jeopardy.  Whether it is basic training for a new bike officer or an advanced tactical course, no agency can afford the liability of putting officers on bikes without a proper indoctrination to the multifaceted aspects of patrolling on bikes.  Even the most accomplished recreational mountain bike rider/racer will admit to learning something from a course like the IPMBA Police Cyclist Course.

A big mistake many agencies make is to stop training after the basic course.  Training must continue in the form of in-service and annual re-certification, but advanced courses are just as important to bike officers as they are to other specialized public safety occupations.  Regularly scheduled in-service training and periodic re-qualification are the best hedge against out-of-shape, injury-prone officers who might tempt fate if left to train on their own.  Out-of-shape officers with rusty skills are a liability not only to their own safety, but also to other officers or citizens who might need their help.  Keep the “failed to train” lawsuits at bay: train frequently.

Departments which opt for in-house maintenance should send the fleet mechanic(s) to a bike maintenance/overhaul course.  There are several national schools available and IPMBA offers a four-day Maintenance Officer Certification Course designed for establishing a maintenance program specifically for police equipment. What’s the difference?  Remember, many police bikes are ridden 24/7 as compared to bikes ridden recreationally two or three times a week:  The maintenance is more intensive and frequent, and the bikes require adjustment and replacement of components much sooner. 

One would be amazed at the number of officers who have started a bike unit, acquired the equipment, then realized they had no place to store it all.  Storage space is essential, yet  frequently overlooked.  Obviously, this is determined by where the unit will be based: Will it be headquarters, a community office, the city garage, or a closet behind the jail? 

Securable space should be provided for bikes, tools, spares, and other related equipment. 

Receptacles to plug in the chargers for the headlight batteries are a necessity. Related equipment might include car-mounted racks for use in transporting the bikes to their area of deployment.  Most racks are cumbersome and take up space, but if they are left on the cars, the weather will deteriorate the straps and rubber components, so they should be stored when not in use.

Outside bike storage is not advisable for the same reason cited for the car-racks.  If they must be kept outside, they should be protected by a lean-to roof or a tarp to prevent direct exposure to the sun and rain.   Long-term storage over the winter in unridable climates should be indoors if at all possible. Some departments issue their bikes to officers to take home, thereby eliminating the storage problem, but it might cost them in transport rack purchases.

For departments planning in-house maintenance, a shop area is an important consideration. It should have ample room for a workstation and tools, storage for spare parts, wheels, and other components; a bench with a vise and truing-stand, electricity, hot and cold water, and good ventilation. 

The second most frequently asked question is,  “Where can I get copies of bike patrol SOPs?”  Having copies of various departments’ bike patrol general or special orders can be useful, but it is important to keep in mind that what fits one agency does not always work for another.   However, there are some basic areas that should be covered when creating bike unit SOPs. 

Include a broad policy statement defining the purpose and scope of the bike patrol.  This policy should be written with the future in mind; many small units grow over time in numbers and scope and a narrow policy focus can stunt that growth.  

Next, define the bike officer profile, which becomes part of the selection criteria. For example, the ideal bike officer may have the following profile:  self-motivating, productive work ethic; good physical condition and a willingness to continually improve same; good public relations skills.  The next step is to lay out the selection process, including all prerequisites.

Other basic elements of the policy are the general duties of the unit, the hours of operation, adverse weather prohibitions, special assignments, and maintenance requirements.

Past experience has shown that it is wise to regulate the use of the bike uniform for various assignments.  Bike uniforms are generally more expensive than standard issue so, unless your budget permits, it is good idea to make them last as long as possible.  Uniform issues to address include: Can a bike officer still wear the bike uniform when relegated to the car due to inclement weather or indoor assignment, or on an off-duty assignment where the bike is not part of the assignment?  Can he/she wear the bike jacket with the regular uniform when not on the bike?  Some of these questions may already be covered in the regular uniform policy but bike officers tend to be free thinkers who love their equipment, so it is best to cover all the possibilities up front.

As mentioned earlier, training is as important as the mission of the unit.  The policy should include training mandates naming the course approved for basic training (such as the IPMBA P.C. Course), the frequency of in-service training and re-certification, the inclusion of bike-specific firearms training, and administrative actions for failure to pass re-certification or in-service training.

These are some of the basics, but the department’s individual situation (POST, accreditation requirements, etc.) will dictate the inclusiveness of the bike patrol policy. 

Officer Selection
Because of the unique, demanding – and usually public – role of bike patrol, bike units must be staffed by highly motivated officers.  Bike units require officers who will promote the unit in the eyes of the department and the public by their demeanor, their activities, and their accomplishments.  These officers become the foundation for and continue to fortify the unit’s success.

When staffing a bike team, it is important to identify the desired job skills and personal qualities of the “ideal” bike officer.  Those skills and/or qualities that comprise an “ideal” bike officer are often driven by the unit’s purpose and goals, for example, drug interdiction, community oriented policing, or general patrol.  Pre-requisite training may be defined and periodic requalifications established for those bike officers working in a specialized capacity. 

Many agencies use oral boards to identify or pre-qualify bike officer candidates before submitting them to physical readiness tests.  Good bike officer candidates should practice good work ethics and be results-oriented, self-motivated, team players.  Because they are highly visible and have close contact with the public and the media, good interpersonal communications skills are important.  These skills are essential for community oriented policing practitioners who are frequently called upon to speak to citizen groups or conduct bicycle safety presentations for children.  In addition, because they typically roll up on crimes in progress, bike officers must be able to react quickly from a tactical standpoint.  They must possess excellent knowledge of the laws of arrest, search and seizure, drug laws, use of force, etc., in order to be effective.

From a risk management perspective, requiring candidates to submit to a medical examination and/or a stress test can identify health problems not conducive to the rigors of bike patrol work.  A physical exam can show potential problem areas such as high blood pressure, asthmatic conditions, or back problems; and a stress test on a treadmill can ascertain the officer’s aerobic fitness level.  Together, these tests yield the best assessment of a candidate’s suitability for bike patrol duty. 

Recently IPMBA has employed the “Physical Activity Readiness Questionnaire” (PAR-Q) for bike school candidates to fill out prior to enrolling in the basic IPMBA Police Cyclist Course.  The form consists of questions requiring “yes” and “no” answers about the officer’s health history.  If the candidate answers “yes” to any of the questions, a medical clearance form must be completed by the officer’s medical professional before he or she is allowed to participate in the class.

The medical and stress testing can be expensive, especially if multiple candidates need to be screened.  Another, less scientific, way to accomplish the same end is to create on-bike, pre-training assessment exercises.  Physical readiness and bike-handling skills can be assessed, and areas in which improvement is needed can be identified before the officer is admitted into the actual bike training course.

These prerequisite courses can be designed by active bike officers who are familiar with the levels of fitness and proficiency required for a candidate to be successful in the basic training course.  Some departments use a “time trial,” in which officers must ride a certain distance within a given time limit; others use a cone course to test the candidate’s ability to negotiate slow speed turns or operate within a confined area as a reflection of the officer’s bike handling skills.

Frequently, the question arises: what level of fitness is required to be an effective bike patrol officer?  This question is often followed by the almost inevitable comparison of  -- and debate over  -- the physical requirements of bike officers vs. those of SWAT or tactical officers.  In reality, many bike officers are also SWAT Team members, and the jobs share many of the same physical demands. 

It may be argued that SWAT officers may need more upper body strength for climbing, while bike officers need more leg speed and endurance for crosstown pursuits, for instance.  Nevertheless, both bike and SWAT team members must have high aerobic capacity and must be able to sustain composure under the stress of anaerobic activity.  Bike officers arriving at the scene of a crime in progress after a hard ride must have strength left to assist another officer or a citizen, affect an arrest or, ultimately, defend themselves against aggression.

Developing these physical abilities for both bike and SWAT officers comes from the same kinds of training and cross training, e.g., running, road cycling, off-road cycling, resistance training, swimming, and participation in such team sports as basketball and football.

Officers should not rely on duty time to maintain their fitness levels; rather, off-duty time should be set aside to work on strength and cardiovascular levels at least three times per week.

Once officers are selected and assigned to the bike unit, their training must not cease.  Many departments ignore an important element of keeping a bike unit’s proficiency at a high level – regularly scheduled in-service bike training.  In addition to basic skill drills and arrest tactics, bike officers should train off-road as often as possible.  More bike-handling decisions (shifting, braking, pedaling cadence, body position, etc.) are made in one mile of off-road riding than in ten miles on the street.

In summary, the officer selection process is perhaps the single most important element of creating or sustaining a bike patrol unit, for it is the officers’ commitment and dedication to the concept that ultimately ensures its success.

Although starting a bike patrol may seem simple, there is much more than meets the eye.  Departments in the process of or thinking of starting a bike patrol would do well to conduct careful research and rely on the expertise of the members of the largest bike patrol organization in the world, IPMBA, to help in making those tough decisions.

Tom Woods, a founding member and past president of IPMBA, has been in law enforcement for 22 years and in bike patrol since 1990.  Representing IPMBA, he started the first mountain bike patrol in the former Soviet Union in 1994, a 100-officer unit in Rwanda, Africa; and a unit in Tbilisi, Republic of Georgia.  

This article appeared in the April 2004 issue of Law and Order magazine, wwww.lawandordermag.com.   

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