Superheroes Swooping In

Superheroes Swooping In

By Jeannine Heinecke, Law Enforcement Technology Magazine

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Swoop! Zoom!

These action words may conjure images of comic book heroes. Instead, they are part of the everyday language of real-life heroes — bicycle patrol officers.

Contrary to the more common image of a bicycle officer handing out trading cards to small children are images of bicycles used in undercover surveillance, drug interdiction and riot control. Bicycle officers use their stealth mobility to swoop in on a drug deal or isolate an agitator in the middle of a demonstrating crowd.

Working the shadows

Open almost any modern comic book and the pages are covered in shadows. Perhaps the villains are conspiring in an alleyway, or the hero is hiding in the shadows, waiting to pounce. Police cyclists working surveillance and drug interdiction use the shadows in parking garages, stairwells and alleyways to their advantage.

“We will set up in a parking garage where you can see a known drug area,” explains Lt. Roy Waldhelm of the San Antonio (Texas) Police Department Downtown Foot and Bike Patrol. “We have officers on street level ready whenever the spotter sees a deal going down. He will notify the other officers, and they will swoop in on the bikes so fast, from two or three different directions, and make the arrest.”

The Seattle (Washington) Police Department has taken this type of surveillance one step further with the use of cameras. Various cameras are positioned throughout downtown in known drug areas. According to Sgt. Ashley Price, Seattle PD Bicycle Patrol, while one officer monitors the cameras, others hide in the alleys. “Then when the officer watching the cameras sees a narcotics transaction go down, other team members zoom in on the bikes,” explains Price.

With this quick strike tactic, the goal is to get the dealer out of the area as soon as possible so local residents and shoppers do not get scared and other drug dealers in the area do not see the activity. “If drug dealers see the police come in and swoop, they know we have to do paperwork. So, they will typically come right back out,” explains Price. “If we can go quickly enough, maybe the dealer a half-block over won’t even see it happen.” Then the patrol can be even more effective.

Sometimes just the stealth nature of the bike makes it possible to bust drug dealers and users without the cover of shadows. Officers can often ride up behind people without them noticing. “They will be smoking marijuana or making a heroin deal without ever realizing you’re there,” says Waldhelm.

Price has had the same experience. On one occasion, she saw a man take out a crack pipe, put a rock in it and begin to smoke. Price rode up to the man, and in a state of panic, he put the entire pipe in his mouth and began to chew. “He was getting ready to swallow it until we ordered him not to,” she explains. “It is just a panic thing. All of a sudden the officer is there, and they don’t have that ‘spot the patrol car and stomp something out’ or ‘drop it and run’ opportunity.

“Bicycles are definitely a highly effective tool in enforcing narcotics.”

Although bike patrols are very effective at making arrests, they are not the ideal mode of transportation following the arrest. In Seattle, the bike patrol has an assigned transport, but still calls for a patrol vehicle when that transport is not available. Officers with the Ann Arbor (Michigan) Police Department Mountain Bike Patrol, who work outside downtown, drive patrol cars equipped with bicycle racks. At the time of arrest, one officer will stay with the suspect while the other returns to the car, picks up the detainee and transports him to the station.

The element of disguise

Batman has Bruce Wayne. Superman has Clark Kent. Dual identities can work to a super hero’s advantage. In the case of police cyclists, undercover operations are an option for drug enforcement and other surveillance needs — if equipment issues can be remedied.

The Ann Arbor PD has run plain-clothes operations in the University of Michigan Ann Arbor student housing areas to decrease the number of break-ins during the holiday season. When conducting a plain-clothes operation, a lot of questions are raised about the storage and accessibility of gear and which bike to use — Where will an officer carry his radio, firearm, handcuffs, etc.? How will he covertly press the talk button on his radio?

“Basically, your pockets are really loaded down,” warns Officer Kathleen Vonk of the Ann Arbor PD Bike Patrol. “There is no carrying case.” Fortunately, because of the university setting, bike officers were able to wear student backpacks to contain the gear.

Another significant issue is how to disguise a police bike or whether to use a property room bike instead. When using a property room bike, it is highly recommended that it be examined by a mechanic and given a complete overhaul. Even after the overhaul, Vonk says, “We really don’t advise using property room bikes because you don’t know the history of the bicycle or what mechanical problems are going to arise.”

Maintaining order

In cases of large crowds or areas with potential for problems, Super¬man can monitor from above the crowd. When problems arise, he can rush to the emergency and provide a barrier between the villains and the public. Using his super speed, he can swoop in and extract villains “faster than a speeding bullet!”

During peaceful demonstrations, police cyclists can monitor the crowd from the slight elevation of the bicycle. But when demonstrations turn violent or chaotic, bicycles are especially advantageous for speed and maneuverability in deploying conventional crowd control equipment.

One of the primary tasks of the Seattle PD bike patrol is maintaining order at all demonstrations, protests and marches in the downtown area. Bicycle use in crowd management can be separated into static and moving maneuvers. Static maneuvers include creating fence lines, barriers and gates — maneuvers in which the officer is not riding the bike but using it as a directional, defensive device.

When patrolling the crowd or arresting or rescuing people in the crowd, the Seattle PD uses moving maneuvers, such as the Crossbow Movement. According to Price, riding into the crowd in two lines, they use 10 bikes to make the perimeter of the arrest. The two lead bikes will grab the arrestee while the remaining team members encircle the arrestee in a fence line facing the crowd. The bikes are used to hold back the crowd as the lead cyclists remove the suspect from the situation. In order for this technique to work, the team must work quickly so the crowd does not have time to react.

Besides bicycle maneuvers, the Seattle bike patrol is allowed to use riot control agents, such as OC, in crowd control situations. But, Price cautions, “Those are deployed not to move crowds but to get people in compliance, effect an arrest or aid someone in immediate danger.” When moving the crowd, it relies on its rapid response tactics.

Crimes that don’t make the headlines

When Spiderman finally defeated the Green Goblin, his arch nemesis, it made huge headlines. When he stopped a purse-snatcher, it didn’t. Although it may not be as exciting as swooping in on a drug deal or controlling an unruly crowd, traffic enforcement is a large part of the bicycle patrol officer’s daily routine.

Bicycle patrols are ideal for traffic enforcement in downtown, congested traffic areas. Under these conditions, traffic is moving at speeds at which the bike can compete.

Officers can move ahead of traffic by utilizing sidewalks, bike lanes or the ability to weave through gridlocked vehicles.

Two- or four-man teams are very useful in traffic enforcement. When using battery-operated radars, one officer can position himself at one end of the street, sometimes in an obscured location, and radio the other officer located at the opposite end with vehicle information and the speed of the violation.

When cracking down on stop sign enforcement, Vonk recommends using teams of four officers. As she explains, “If it is a four-way stop, you can have officers half a block down on every side and have one officer watching the stop.” The observer will then call the officer in the appropriate direction with a description of the vehicle that ran the stop sign.

Cruising, a problem in the streets of San Antonio on Friday and Saturday nights, is another traffic violation that can be curbed through the use of bicycle patrols. To help with this problem, officers “set up fixed posts to keep traffic moving and prevent cruisers from making little turns that allow them to keep looping around the downtown area,” says Waldhelm.


Most super heroes have a signature gadget. Daredevil has his multipurpose cane, and Batman has a cave full of gadget-rich vehicles. Bicycle officers also carry some useful, crime-fighting gadgets, and ride the most important one. When it comes to gadgets, police cyclists are limited to what they can carry on their person — firearm, baton, pepper spray, handcuffs, ticketing materials, etc. But, they can also use their bicycles as offensive or defensive weapons.

A technique used in riot control is the Bicycle Fence Line — a maneuver that utilizes the bicycle as a defensive tool. As Price describes, the officers line up the bikes, chain-side out, and stand behind them. “If people start to rush the bikes, we then have an approved tactic where we pick the bikes up and take a giant step forward,” explains Price. “We will say, ‘Move back!’ and use that to move crowds.”

Bicycles also can be used in one-on-one situations. “We recommend that if an officer is working alone, and he makes contact with a suspect, to use the bike as a barrier between the officer and the suspect,” says Vonk. If the suspect initiates contact, the officer should try to clear the bicycle first, and fast.

If the officer is already off the bike and a suspect advances, one maneuver Vonk recommends is to hit the rear brake and pull the front tire into the air so it is between the suspect and the officer while the officer stabilizes the bike on the rear tire. “It is a distraction to give the suspect something to negotiate,” she says. While distracted, the officer can dismount the bike and move to another force option.

Generally, it is not recommended that officers make physical contact with suspects while riding the bicycle. If possible, officers should try to drop the bike 10 to 15 feet away and then move into the situation on foot. Even though the bike can be a handy gadget for the officer, at times it also can be a detriment. “If you are on the bicycle, you’re a police cyclist,” says Vonk. “But once you’re off, you’re a police officer. Keep the bike out of the way because it can be an obstacle to the officer as well as the suspect.”

Under the cloak of darkness

More often than not, super heroes work beneath the night’s sky. Most time spent on bike patrols is during the daylight hours, so evening patrols provide challenges not only in equipment and lighting needs, but also the type of criminal encounters. Intox¬ication, drunk driving and gang activities are just a few of the suspect trends that occur more frequently at night.

When riding at night, officers are encouraged to stay out of the street because of poor visibility and drunk drivers. When it is necessary to ride in the road, officers must have proper rear lighting, even when riding stealth (without a headlight). In fact, according to Vonk, most night patrol is done without the headlight activated. With an average of one to three lighting hours on a rechargeable unit, a police cyclist would not be able to utilize the lamp for an entire shift anyway. But headlights, besides being required by law, also are useful in lighting a path or controlling a suspect.

For officers who conduct frequent low-light patrols, or for any officer looking to improve riding skills, Vonk recommends off-road riding at night. “In darkness, all you have is your headlight, and you can only see what the rider ahead of you is doing,” she says. “You have to react a lot faster to what is coming, and there isn’t a lot of room for planning. It really improves technical skills and decision making.”

Using a firearm has special considerations in low-light situations. Assuming the officer dismounts his bicycle and then shoots, if the headlight is on, there may be sighting problems. “If there is a light behind you, it might hit the rear sights and shade the front sights,” explains Vonk. Flashing or multicolored lights to the rear of the officer create even more issues.

There when you need them

All super heroes have a knack of fighting off the villain just in the nick of time to save the victim, often in front of the awestruck and adoring community.

The San Antonio Foot and Bike Patrol has such a good rapport with its community, as well as quick response times to back it up, that downtown residents have turned to calling the police substation direct rather than 911 dispatch. “Many of the businesses and residents downtown, instead of calling 911 or the regular dispatch center when they have a problem, they call us directly,” explains Waldhelm. “They know that if they call us directly, they are going to get a quicker response.”

Being visible in the community is a huge advantage for bicycle patrols. There is no way to maintain statistics on how many crimes have been prevented just because of visibility, but as Price says, “Perception is far more than half the equation. If people see us, they think things are okay.”

New villains, new opportunities

As each villain is vanquished, comic book writers create a new obstacle for the super hero. In the real world, writers aren’t needed to create new villains — they create themselves. With each new crime development, bike patrols have the opportunity to adapt their skills and meet new challenges.

One recent development for bicycle patrols is homeland security and disaster relief. On September 11, 2001, bicycle messengers, though not members of public service agencies, added to the relief effort by running messages, blood, first aid equipment and other supplies to and from Ground Zero. “Mountain bicycles can be used in natural or man-made disasters when normal transportation and communications systems are not operating,” says Maureen Becker, executive director of the International Police Mountain Bike Association (IPMBA). “The versatility and mobility of a bicycle can help overcome some of these obstacles.”

Other areas bicycle patrols are expanding into include search and rescue, private security and airport security. The National Association of Search and Rescue (NASAR) has created a joint training program with IPMBA on the use of bicycles in search and rescue operations. According to Vonk, utilizing GPS equipment and enhanced radio systems, bicycles allow first responders to quickly access emergency routes, locate and provide first aid to victims, and either guide the people back to safety or move them to a location where motorized transport can pick them up.

Private security cyclists are becoming more prevalent at shopping malls, businesses, sports facilities, amusement parks and more. Bicycles are advantageous at these locations because they can transverse parking lots rather than following the typical traffic flow.

“I think it is important for administrators and departments to realize a bicycle is an extremely versatile tool for law enforcement,” says Becker. “It is not strictly a mode of transportation, and is far beyond a public relations tool. When opportunities arise to address certain crimes, they should not overlook the bicycle; rather, they should enable the bike officers to devise solutions themselves.”

Look out Superman and Batman, there is a new super hero on the streets, and he is swooping into your neighborhood.

(c) 2004 Cygnus Media Group. This article appeared in the July 2004 issue of Law Enforcement Technology magazine. 

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