By Jeffrey Sykes, Editor, Yesweekly.com
November 4, 2015
Let’s say you’re one of Greensboro’s finest bike patrol officers and you simultaneously need to take off pedaling for all you’re worth and activate your safety lights.
In the past, officers with the Greensboro Police Department’s downtown bike squad would’ve had bulky clip-on lights and a push-button control switch attached to the stem of the steering column.
Officers needed to fumble with the control switch while maintaining control of the bike with one hand. Not the most efficient set-up for people who often work in highstress situations.
One Greensboro police officer’s innovative switch box is a prime example of what happens when preparation meets opportunity.
Patrol Officer Al Lewis describes himself as an electronics tinkerer. His dad worked in the field of electronics and passed the trait on to Lewis, who joined GPD in 2010 after seeing several recruiting billboards around town.
Five years later, Lewis found himself assigned to the bike team, CCRT-B, which patrols Downtown Greensboro. This past March, Lewis found himself on a traffic assignment. He was trying to block off a street with his bike but kept thinking to himself “I wish I had a patrol car right about now.”
That’s when the ‘eureka moment’ struck. What if the department could deck out the patrol bikes with blue lights, making them more visible? Lewis asked his sergeant at the time, who said they used to have clip-on blue lights but stopped using them because they were bulky and in the way. The lights would clip on to the handlebars, or the cargo rack, but they stuck out a lot.
“Since these are police bikes they get used and abused more than your average bike,” Lewis said. “They get dropped. They run into things. (The lights) kept getting broken because they stuck out.”
Lewis began to research existing products, but found only more bulky assemblies. He thought that surely someone had come up with something better.
“The more I looked, the more I realized no one had,” Lewis said.
After getting permission to research the matter, Lewis found a product with slim strobe strips and modules that attach to various parts of the bike—front of handle bars, side of cargo rack—but they were controlled by a push-button switch attached to the steering column.
The set-up worked better as far as the lights were concerned, but the control switch remained a problem. The strobe controller had a push on/hold off switch.
“When you are riding a bike and chasing somebody, it’s kind of hard to do that. It was also really easy to bump it and turn it on accidentally,” Lewis said.
Lewis developed an idea for a rockerswitch—a box controlled by an officer’s thumb and attached to the handlebars. The idea was solid, but available products fell short of ideal. Some were too long. Others too wide. None were just right.
One of his colleagues, Officer Stafford, was a member of The Forge, a makerspace community on West Lewis Street in Downtown Greensboro, and invited Lewis to explore the space to see if they had what he needed to make a switch box to meet his specifications.
Lewis had tools at home, of course, and an available work space at the police department. What he didn’t have was a 3D printer. The Forge does.
Lewis worked on a basic design—compact enough not to be in the way, but durable enough to use in the field—and took it in. Once at The Forge, Mario Aldayuz, the board vice-president, and members Mikey Burggaf and Chandler Mayo, helped him engineer the shape of the switch box. Mayo helped him develop a prototype that was very close to ideal. From there, Lewis customized the final design and learned to use the 3D printer to make his idea a reality.
The switch box is designed to fit on a standard handlebar, with slots for zip ties to secure the box in place. A separate plate with two holes for the rocker switches fits into the open top of the box.
The switch, which Lewis has dubbed “The Panther,” is important because it allows the bike patrol officer to control the lights on his bike in a more efficient manner. The switch box also splits the existing strobe strip package into two: one for the blue light modules and one for the basic front and rear safety lights.
“The whole thing can now be controlled exactly like that with your thumb while you are still riding, while you are still on the bike and ready to go,” Lewis said. “That was all made possible with that 3D printer. Nothing like (this light system), as far as I can tell, exists out there. Everything is either front only, rear only, nothing is completely 360-degrees all the way around.”
Lewis has fabricated 19 switch boxes for his colleagues on the bike patrol so far.
Sgt. Kory Flowers said that when Lewis approached his chain of command with the idea for an integrated strobe system, nothing like it had been suggested before. Command wanted to see an initial design.
“After the first prototype was finished, the possibilities were clearly obvious and downtown bike officers realized quickly what a simple, yet profound, creation this was for our job function,” Flowers said.
The combination of technology and design innovation coming from a “fairly new line officer” was unique, Flowers said. The switch’s compact design keeps it out of the way and allows officers to focus on patrol duties.
“Often when downtown officers are operating among large, chaotic crowds, a simple flick of the blue light switch turns the patrol bicycle into a flashing beacon of blue, and allows other officers and supervisors instant and ready recognition of exactly where our guys are in the masses,” Flowers said. “In day-to-day patrol bike operations downtown, the bright LED lights keep our officers safer than they would be with a simple front and rear light package, as is standard fare among recreational cyclists.”
Lewis created “an instant waiting list,” Flowers said, as other officers expressed interest in the strobe-rocker switch package.
Staff at The Forge are excited that a product designed in their casual community of creators is having an impact on the streets.
“It’s a really great example of what The Forge is capable of. There are similar examples, but nothing that’s so beautifully involved in the community,” said Joe Rotondi, the recently announced executive director of The Forge. “It really shows off Greensboro as a community as a whole and The Forge’s place in it.”
Rotondi said the design’s impact exceeds the scope of The Forge and shows off the talents of a bike patrol officer outside of his normal course of duty.
“It’s exciting in the context that it really puts The Forge in the community. It really places the police force more in the community outside of their regular context,” he said.
Lewis has other ideas he’s working on now, including an integrated strobe-switch package and an improved, more durable wire system for the department’s body worn cameras.
Having his love of electronics meet the need for process improvements in his work life was something unexpected for Lewis.
“I never thought I’d be a bike officer for one, but when I did, I never thought I’d be able to put all those mechanical and electrical talents to use,” Lewis said. “It really kind of came out of left field. I saw the opportunity and thought, ‘hey, I can do this.’ I asked ‘can I do this?’ and they said ‘sure, go ahead and we will see what happ