by Mickey Veich
Getting a new bike unit and bike officers up and running effectively can be a department’s worst nightmare, unless, of course, it is backed by the International Police Mountain Bike Association (IPMBA). This 15-year-old organization comes to the rescue with a special expertise that distinguishes it from other police-related professional associations. IPMBA, a 3000-member organization of mountain bike patrol officers and command staff, takes a proactive role in the effective administration and training of new and experienced bike officers throughout the world.
The first “police on bikes” conference, held in 1991, led to the creation of IPMBA in 1992. Since that time, IPMBA has offered a hosted event in support of their goals of promoting the use of bikes for public safety, providing resources and networking opportunities, and offering the best, most complete training for public safety cyclists.
IPMBA maintains a cadre of highly specialized trainers and an array of training classes that are the envy of police departments the world over. Officers hone their patrol cycling skills and learn about a diverse array of issues they may encounter as bike officers by attending such workshops as:
- Creating a Specialized Bike Unit
- Introduction to Bike Maintenance
- Youth Bicycle Education
- Deadly Force Encounters
- Fitness & Nutrition for the Uniformed Cyclist
- Minimizing the Impact of Bicycle Crashes
- Suspect Contact & Apprehension
- Advance Planning for Special Events
- Urban Campers: Problem Oriented Policing
- Tactical Bike Patrol
- Conquering the Fear of Stairs
- Building a Bike Training Obstacle Course Kit
- Defensive & Survival Tactics
- Obstacle/Stress Course: Tools for Training
- Bicycle Use in Crowd Management
Police departments around the world are realizing that, in addition to saving significant city and state revenues, officers on bikes are just as effective as officers in cars – sometimes more so. The bike is viewed not just as a mode of transportation, but as an effective tool for policing and can be integrated into police work in ways not possible for a patrol car. Other than the mode of transportation, the bike officer is equipped the same as any other officer, and is trained to use the absence of a car strategically.
One of the biggest advantages is that officers on bikes can maneuver in places most normal squads cannot patrol. And while bikes will never be able to replace automobiles, government entities of all sizes are realizing that bike officers really pay for themselves.
In Scottsdale, Arizona, for example, site of the 2005 IPMBA conference, all patrol officers wrote a grand total of 23,938 traffic citations. The Bike Unit alone accounted for more than $1.3 million in fines from traffic and criminal citations in their last fiscal year – or nearly half the citation revenue, using recent figures from courts around the nation indicating that the average ticket generates $120 in revenue. Those numbers can immediately justify the decision to initiate a bike unit, as it can quickly pay for itself.
Departments which have bicycle units, or are thinking of starting one, would do well to take advantage of the training offered at the annual IPMBA conference. With eight pre-conference training and certification courses, and a conference featuring nearly 50 on-bike and classroom-based sessions, the amount of knowledge to be gained is staggering. There is truly something for everyone, as workshops are divided into such categories as bike handling and skill development, off-road riding, instructor development, officer survival, administrator topics, campus issues, community issues, fitness and nutrition, and maintenance. Here are just a few of the featured training topics.
MANAGING RISK IN BICYCLE TRAINING ACTIVITIES
Like most law enforcement activities, bicycle patrol is not without its risks. The purpose of the risk assessment is to identify, assess, treat and manage the risks of bicycle patrol operations and training. The best place to start is IPMBA, whose training programs have been developed largely to minimize the risks to the officer as well as the members of the public. In some places, such as Australia and the UK, requirements that formal risk assessments be conducted on all training and on-duty activities are quite stringent.
In the Australian model, presented by Adam Bernhardt, senior bike instructor and primary architect of the New South Wales police bike program, the first step is to identify hazards (sources of potential natural harm) and threats (source of potential deliberate harm, usually arising from human action). These risks are then rated on a five-point scale, from insignificant to catastrophic, and their likelihood is measured on a scale from rare to almost certain. Measures to avoid, transfer, or minimize the risk are then put into place. These measures include appropriate equipment selection, training and practice, documentation, proper maintenance, and setting policy.
The main elements of risk management are as follows: 1) establishing the context; 2) identifying the risks; 3) analyzing the risks; 4) treating risks; 5) monitoring and reviewing the risk treatments; and 6) communication and consultation.
The effort involved in risk assessing bicycle patrol activities can yield increased knowledge and understanding of exposure to risk, reduced litigation options, a framework for decision-making, minimal disruptions, and better utilization of resources.
FITNESS AND NUTRITION FOR THE UNIFORMED CYCLIST
Riding a fully-equipped police mountain bike for an entire shift requires a great deal of stamina, so proper nutrition and physical fitness cannot be ignored. These dietary and physiological needs were outlined by Officer Kathleen Vonk of the Ann Arbor, Michigan, Police Department. Vonk, a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) by the National Strength and Conditioning Association, is the lead fitness instructor for the Washtenaw Police Academy.
Vonk’s presentation covered some issues unique to the emergency services professions which can lead to chronic stress and cardiovascular disease, such as critical incident stress and restrictions on when, where, and how long officers can eat, which can cause officers to opt for the quick and easy (but ever unhealthy) – greasy fried fast food. Extended tours and odd working hours can also contribute to chronic fatigue which can exacerbate risk of cardiovascular disease, and working with the injured and sick can expose the officer to physiological danger.
Although the human body adapts and recovers quite well from brief but intense bouts of stress, such as searching a building with a known suspect inside, these same acute stress incidents can lead to chronic health issues. Vonk also mentioned that not only do officers have to deal with suspects who are under the influence of alcohol and drugs, they must also perform well both physically and mentally while influenced by the body’s own drugs – potent chemicals that are dumped into the bloodstream when a perceived threat is encountered. Given this, she likens the police officer’s job to that of a professional athlete… although the consequences of poor performance can be dramatically different, both the athlete and the officer must perform well both mentally and physically, while experiencing high levels of physical, mental, and emotional stress.
So what is the modern crime-fighter to do? Prevention and early detection. Vonk encourages an annual physical, complete with blood work – no matter the age of the officer. She also stresses knowledge of the seven major risk factors for cardiovascular disease (CVD), especially since 50% of police officers die within five years of retirement due to CVD, and also because CVD is the greatest cause for early retirement (cite: Jon Blum, North Carolina Justice Academy, “Promoting Fitness Adherence for Law Enforcement” prepared for and presented for the American Society of Law Enforcement Trainers (ASLET) 2001 Annual Training Conference). These risk factors include genetics, elevated cholesterol, high blood pressure, cigarette smoking, diabetes, a sedentary lifestyle, and obesity. Diet and exercise are often the keys to prevention.
Vonk introduced the concept of using personal maximum heart rate (MHR), calculated by subtracting current age from 220, as part of a fitness program. For example, a 35 year old officer would have a MHR of 185 beats per minute (bpm). Heart rate “training zones” are then determined by multiplying the MHR by 70% and 80% for the upper and lower limits respectively; 129-148 bpm for that same 35-year old officer. The officer should monitor his or her heart rate using a monitor or by manual pulse rate checks during physical activity to assure that the proper goals are being pursued.
Vonk went on to cover issues specific to police cyclists which can contribute to poor health and injury, such as dehydration, improper nutritional intake, and overtraining; as well as injuries caused by improper bicycle fit, inappropriate clothing and equipment, and inadequate recovery practices.
ADVANCED SKILL DEVELOPMENT
The goal of the many on-bike skills workshops at the conference is to develop a level of bike-handling mastery that allows the officer to concentrate on policing, not cycling. Therefore, officers spend a great deal of time practicing their vehicular cycling skills as well as their bike-handling skills, starting with basic drills and progressing to more advanced skills. These skills, performed under the watchful eyes of more experienced mentors, include riding a 4 x 4, 10-foot balance beam. Officers gain confidence while riding these 4-inch wide obstructions, similar to biking along the tops of parking blocks. In addition to balance beams, IPMBA instructors build teeter-totters, which the officer must ride up one side, balance temporarily in the middle, and then ride down the other side without falling, even when the device flops down to the ground.
To make the skills building exercises more challenging, numerous blaze orange traffic cones are strategically placed before, after and around these exercises, often in intricate patterns. These cones represent objects or humans around which the officers are expected to negotiate. Another training exercise necessitates officers practicing non-stop pedaling over wooden pallets, climbing large rocks, curbs, and miscellaneous natural and man-made obstructions. In short, bike officers practice pedaling over and around various objects and obstructions that they may encounter on patrol – natural or man-made obstacles, objects fallen into the street, or obstacles thrown in the bike officer’s path by a runner-violator during a pursuit.
Riding bikes up and down stairs is often necessary while on patrol, so it is an often-practiced skill. Officers progress from riding down just a few low stairs to descending as many as 15, or more. The ability to safely descend stairs can enable an officer to pursue a suspect into unexpected places. Mastering stairs requires an in-depth understanding of the mechanics of braking and balance as well as a patient instructor.
Specific techniques learned and practiced over the years are passed on through the auspices of IPMBA and its membership, illustrating one of the benefits of a professional organization where all officers are in for the assistance of others: a fraternity within a fraternity.
TACTICAL SHOOTING DRILLS
What kind of physical encounters do bike unit officers encounter while on patrol? They encounter exactly the same problems as officers on foot or in a car; however, due to their stealth, the encounters are quickly and frequently up close and face-to-face with the general public as well as the criminal element. The bike officer is easily integrated with the foot traffic at the mall, in downtown pedestrian zones, at congested sporting events, and with visitors to cultural venues and tourist attractions. Therefore, bike officers must receive specialized, bike-specific training in defensive tactics, firearms handling and specialized forms of subject control.
“Tactical Shooting Drills for the Police Cyclist” designed and developed by Team One Network instructor Lou Ann Hamblin (Van Buren Township, MI, Police Department) includes firearms training tailored to the needs of the police cyclist. Those needs, including subject control device placement on the gunbelt, are all addressed in this session. Hamblin points out that the typical bike officer has a variety of essential and non-essential items located on the duty belt.
Sometimes the non-essential items, such as a cellular phone, can hinder an officer’s access to his or her weapons. The importance of weapon transitioning is emphasized by Hamblin. “The motor skill of being able to first locate the desired control device, deploy it, then transition from one level of control to the next is something bike officers have been trained to do for years,” Hamblin says. “Wearing padded gloves can sometimes affect touch indexing. As a result, we sometimes see items like magazines and handcuffs land on the ground when manipulating our control options.”
Gloves, helmets, and the bike all have an affect on shooting. Therefore, the primary purpose of the session is to practice practical, tactical, shooting skills – in full bike uniform, with a bicycle. A variety of functional drills prepare officers to dismount quickly, utilize available cover, and shoot from unconventional positions, such as the ground. Here officers simulate downed officer drills, which teach them to engage their adversaries regardless of their environment and fighting platform and to recover to their feet. Participants are also required to complete a bicycle obstacle course simulating a pursuit prior to a shooting drill, to emphasize the effect physical exertion can have on shooting accuracy. Finally, the officers practice shooting from increasing distances from the target.
At the end of a perfect day, several of the officers from around the world got together to compared notes and learned that more than one of them had been young BMX riders. What a perfect training ground for future police bike officers!
In the final analysis, IPMBA is the epitome of police specialty professionalism. In a true spirit of teamwork and “watching each other’s back”, bike officers help one another attain perfection in their chosen discipline.
Mickey Veich is former BATF special agent turned writer/photographer of police subjects. He is very active in the International Police Association in Arizona and lives there year round. This article was written following the 2005 IPMBA Conference in Scottsdale, Arizona.