by Sgt. Kurt Feavel
University of Wisconsin at Madison
Like their counterparts in towns and cities across the country, many campus-based law enforcement agencies have created mountain bike patrols to serve the unique needs of their communities. And like their counterparts, they have been tremendously successful. Often it is a motivated individual who asks the questions, does the research, and gets the bike unit off and rolling. It is greeted with enthusiasm by the officers, the administration, and the campus population. Then, three or four years later, it seems to flounder. The interest from the community isn't there anymore; the officers aren't as excited as they once were. The unit coordinator must ask, "what can I do to get things going again?" This was the experience of the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW) Police Department. The bike unit was begun in 1992 with excitement, but by 1997, interest from both the officers and the community was waning.
Rather than allow the bike unit to just wither up and die, the UW Police Department decided it was worth the effort to revitalize it. First, they allowed those officers who were no longer interested in riding to leave the unit. Then they began to recruit new officers from all three patrol shifts, which increased the size of the bike unit from six to fourteen. It was a sizable expansion, one that required similar growth in the unit budget in order to purchase uniforms, bikes and equipment. Because the UW does not permit officers to ride until they have completed the International Police Mountain Bike Association's (IPMBA) Police Cyclist Course, it also required an investment in training time.
Once out on the streets, these fresh, new, aggressive officers gave the bike unit a much-needed infusion of vitality. They took so much pride in being members of the bike team that they created a modified version of the department patch for tee-shirts. The t-shirts, designed for training and off-duty wear, are in demand from other members of the department. The enthusiasm extended to the streets, sparking an improvement in unit statistics and reviving both officer and community interest. The sight of officers out in the community, interacting with the public, helped generate a positive image for the Department and the unit.
Public interaction and recognition is just one small part of establishing an identity and keeping the energy level of the bike unit high. Marketing is also essential, especially on a college campus, when students frequently do not perceive the police - especially those on bikes - as "real cops." It was a marketing effort that finally established a strong identity for the bike unit. In early 2002, the chief of police requested a poster, similar to those produced for the University's sports teams, that highlighted the various aspects of the department.
A budget was established, and the work began with a call to the athletic department. As it turned out, the athletic department used a campus resource dedicated to these types of projects: the university's publications department. University Publications agreed to assist, and responsibility for the various aspects of the project was established. Officers from the patrol, bike, and mounted units were selected for the photo shoot to reflect the department itself, the diversity of the department, and the department's units.
The poster was well-received by members of the department and across the campus. It was posted in academic buildings, residence halls and alongside the athletic posters in the athletic department. The unmitigated success of this first poster led the Chief to request additional posters for the community officers and communications center. She also requested two crime prevention posters, one for Date Rape and the other for Theft Prevention. A total of seven posters were completed.
In August of 2002, it was decided that a new series of posters highlighting the department's various units were needed. One of the posters was to feature the bike unit and would play a pivotal role in re-establishing the department's commitment to the bike unit. Bike officers were photographed in uniform, with bikes, in front of a campus landmark building. The image emphasized the unit, but the setting tied it to the campus community. Suddenly the bike unit was enjoying celebrity status and the increased motivation that often accompanies positive feedback.
The UW bike unit did not stop there, however. It built upon the foundation of the public relations campaign by actively involving itself in the community, both on- and off-campus. One primary focus has been the promotion of safe cycling. The bike unit teamed up with officers from surrounding communities to form a task force to tackle bike safety issues. The task force was awarded a Department of Transportation grant for education and enforcement of bicycle laws; several members were certified as Law Enforcement for Bicycle Safety instructors, training other police officers about the importance of enforcing traffic laws as they relate to bicycles. Each fall, members of the unit participate in "Bike to Work" week activities around campus, again, focusing on the responsibilities of cyclists and motorists as users of the transportation system. The bike unit contributes articles about cycling issues to the department newsletter on a regular basis.
Beyond the promotion of safe cycling, members have become involved in rides for various causes. One member of the bike unit rode cross-country from Oregon to New York to raise awareness and money for Alopecia Areata, a highly unpredictable autoimmune system skin disease. The unit provided a bicycle escort for a law enforcement officer from Canada who was riding across the United States to raise awareness about autism. And every year since 1996, the University Police Bike Unit has taken a leadership role in Madison's Law Enforcement Memorial Day events.
Serving as a model to other bike units is another way to call attention to a bike team and sustain the energy of its members. One of the best ways to do this is to develop a reputation as "the" place to go to for training. A university is typically endowed with all the facilities needed to host a successful training. Those facilities are usually readily available, especially during the summer months, and less costly than privately owned meeting space. Rental fees are typically not charged as the University often sees the benefit of sponsoring nationally recognized training events. Instructors can be brought in; agencies from around the state can be invited to participate. The media can be notified and will often do a story about the crime-fighting effectiveness of a well-trained bike unit. This type of coverage can educate the public about the rigorous training bike officers undergo, which may dispel the myth that bike cops are not "real" cops. That alone can be a real morale-booster.
The UW bike team agreed to host an Instructor Course for the International Police Mountain Bike Association (IPMBA), using the university's state-of-the-art sports arena as the venue and offering lunches prepared by the same catering team which prepares the training tables for the athletes. It may sound like a lot of work, but the rewards are immense. Officers from around the region will attend the training and share their experiences with the other members of their departments. The community will see that the facilities are being used year-round and not just for sporting events. The University administration and community as a whole will see that the police department serves an active role even outside of the normal academic year. And the bike team gains credibility and, with it, respect.
Finding new ways to utilize the bike unit also keeps officers interested and engaged, and makes it a more integrated part of the department. There is a tendency to think of bike officers solely in the context of community-oriented policing, but they can be used for so much more, as described in series of articles that appeared in the April 2002 issue of Law & Order. One of the recent development is the use of bikes for crowd control and crowd management. Large cities, such as Los Angeles, Seattle, and Washington, DC, have successfully deployed bicycle rapid response teams during large-scale demonstrations. This type of operation has so much potential and so many applications that IPMBA now offers a 40-hour training course at its annual conference. Some may believe that this type of training is unnecessary for campus police, but that is not the case. The University of Maryland at College Park is currently exploring the possibilities of developing a bike-mounted civil disturbance unit for use during sporting events to combat the type of destruction that resulted from a basketball defeat in 2002. And since college campuses have historically been the setting for the anti-war movement, it is advisable for campus police departments to be prepared to handle potentially volatile crowds.
While promoting the bike unit and enhancing its image are critical to continued success, it is important to remember that a bike team is comprised of individual officers. It is the responsibility of the supervisor to inspire confidence and motivate the members of his or her team. Making sure the officers are properly equipped is a good start. It may not be possible to outfit them with all the new toys and gadgets, but they should at least ride high-quality bikes and wear comfortable, functional, bike-specific uniforms. And, of course, they need encouragement and a positive word. Congratulate them on making good arrests. At briefing, let them know that they are doing a great job. Volumes have been written in management books about the importance of encouragement, praise and recognition to improved employee work and morale. Listen to the concerns of the unit members as they relate to uniforms, equipment, training, operations, etc. Sometimes listening is all it takes.
Finally, motivate and reward them with additional training. If an officer possesses above-average skills and would like to become an instructor, make it happen. This will show that good work pays off and demonstrate to others that the department rewards those who put forth that extra effort. And it is worth the investment: the department will reduce the expense of training by having an in-house trainer and the bike unit will benefit from the enhanced skills that the training will provide.
Most bike patrols are formed as a result of the hard work of a highly motivated individual or group of individuals. At first, the members of the team are out to prove themselves and justify the unit's existence. But it is not realistic to expect a bike unit to sustain the high level of motivation it had when it started. It takes marketing, morale-building, innovation, and community involvement to keep the members of the bike team engaged and involved. With a little bit of effort, the bike team will become an integral part of the department, one that officers want to be identified with and one that plays an important role in overall departmental operations.
Sgt. Kurt Feavel is a 19-year veteran of the University Police Department in Madison, Wisconsin. He is a founding member of the UW bike patrol, serves as the unit coordinator, is a certified IPMBA Police Cyclist Instructor. He is the Crime Prevention supervisor and is responsible for departmental marketing.
This article first appeared in the Spring 2003 issue of Law & Order, www.lawandordermag.com.