By Officer Kathleen Vonk
Ann Arbor Police Department (MI)
Over the past 15 years, police bicycle patrols have become common in today's era of crime fighting and community policing. The mountain bike has proven to be more than just a "fading fad" within the United States and other parts of the world, as success and numbers continue to rise. Police on bikes are found in large and small cities, on almost every college campus, and even on the federal level including the United States Military. Police cyclists have proven success in the areas of urban drug enforcement, public housing projects, surveillance, and community relations.
Bicycles have expanded into the emergency medical field and private EMS companies are putting their paramedics and emergency medical technicians on mountain bikes for special events such as festivals, carnivals, and athletic events. Private security agencies (malls, hospitals, etc.) have also found that patrolling on mountain bikes provides many advantages. However, too many agencies have added bicycles to their patrol and community policing teams without providing initial guidelines and adequate training for their officers.
For today's law enforcement officer, the bicycle is more than just a mode of transportation. Yes, everyone may think they know how to ride a bike, but not everyone knows how to effectively use it as a tool while performing a law enforcement role, unless they have been properly trained to do so. Administrators do not send officers on the street without policy guidelines and training in the use of force, and they are not putting officers behind the wheels of patrol cars without first providing them with policy and training in precision driving. Why then, are some agencies sending officers on bike patrol without policies and training?
Is there a need for training? In reality, the chances of injury to civilian, officer, and suspect are high if an officer is not trained properly. For example, if an officer pursues and catches a suspect who is fleeing on foot, and during the course of the apprehension the bike injures the suspect, who is liable, if anyone? If an officer is riding on the wrong side of the road and is struck by a car pulling out of a driveway, will the agency be able to show that the officer was properly trained not to do so, or will "failure to train" be brought up by the attorney? The solution lies in sound policy and training: Well-researched and thorough policy will address the needs of the agency, the officer, the union, and the citizen.
In a survey distributed at the Police on Bikes Conference in Tacoma, Washington in 1998, it was discovered that only 53% of responding officers had written departmental policy for bike patrol. There are many issues that should be addressed in a department's mountain bike policy, most of which deal with health screening, equipment, maintenance, uniforms, and training requirements. The policy may address issues such as which months will be included in the riding season, any weather condition restrictions (excessive heat, snowy or icy conditions, etc.), in what capacities the bikes can be used (road patrol, special events, directed patrol), and whether an officer should have a patrol car with a bike rack available.
Bikes as Emergency Vehicles
What says that an officer riding a bike to an emergency call is justified in disobeying traffic law? Does departmental policy define the bicycle as a "police vehicle"? Do police bicycles have the proper equipment to comply with the (state law) definition of an "emergency vehicle" such as an audible signal with a minimum decibel level and a flashing or oscillating red or blue light visible from a determined distance? Ideally, the state law should specifically address police bicycles in this area, and this may require drafting a letter to the state legislature.
One interesting issue which is becoming more common is that of a vehicle pursuit: A mountain bike officer attempts a traffic stop and the driver of the motor vehicle flees. In the survey distributed at the 1999 IPMBA Police on Bikes Conference in Chicago, 14% of responding officers reported a pursuit with a motor vehicle, and 80% of these attained a "guilty" verdict for fleeing and eluding. 8% pled to a lesser charge of "fail to obey a lawful order," "resisting arrest," or similar charge, and 12% were still pending. Does the pursuit policy include the police bicycle in the list of vehicles which are authorized to initiate and engage in vehicle pursuit?
Use of Force
On the subject of "Use of Force", mountain bike training has evolved and progressed over the years. Although "power slide take-downs" and riding tackles used to be accepted and even taught to new police cyclists, the issue of liability and injury to officer and suspect has gradually led to the removal of such techniques. This is an issue that departmental policy should also address. For example, in some situations officers are encouraged to place the bike between himself and the adversary. Should the suspect advance, the officer has a physical and psychological barrier the suspect must first overcome before reaching the officer. The officer also has the option of shoving the bike toward the suspect.
This can be used as a distraction technique to allow the officer to gain time and distance, and to react appropriately to the suspect. The bike might strike the suspect when it is shoved toward him. Does this now become an issue of an impact weapon strike? The answer is similar to that of any other object that is used as a distraction device. Officers are trained to use the baton as an impact weapon, they are not trained to use the bike as such. Policy should not define the police mountain bike as an impact weapon, however it should allow for such actions as those described, under circumstances articulated by the officer.
Risk of Injury
Riding a bicycle one of the most complex human motor skills, because it involves the use of all four extremities, in addition to being dependent upon balance to remain upright. If balance is compromised the rider can fall! In police mountain bike training classes, officers are learning new skills, testing themselves, and experiencing their own personal limitations on a bicycle. Performing various high and even low speed maneuvers on a bike can be physically dangerous!
In the 1999 survey, 55% of responding officers reported that they had incurred injury while on bike patrol or during training. Most injuries consist of minor abrasions and bruises. Infrequent but more severe injuries may include wrist, forearm and collar bone fractures, stitches, separated shoulders, plantar fasciitis1, tennis elbow, and strained muscles. The goal in training then is to minimize the chance and frequency of injury and falling, through skill development and improvement.
In the 1999 survey it was found that only 23% of responding officers were required to pass a medical screening test prior to attending training or riding a bike on patrol. In a 1999 training class in Michigan, a mall security officer experienced heart failure and died while riding with his class. This sober incident should serve as evidence of the need to pre-screen all class participants. Mountain bike officers inevitably will exert themselves physically, which will causes stress on the physiological processes of the human body. It only makes sense that the police cyclist should have no pre-existing conditions that may put his/her physical well-being in jeopardy. The screening process should include (at the very minimum) a complete physical exam, comprehensive cardiovascular/cardiopulmonary exam (heart, lungs, and circulatory system, usually in the form of a stress test), and an orthopedic exam with emphasis on the back and knees.
Again, the solution lies in sound policy and training. Proper and professional training should be provided by certified instructors, through a professional police mountain bike training organization. Just as officers who attend a Tactical Pistol course are not then qualified to teach firearms, officers who attend a certified police cyclist course are not qualified to teach others. It was discovered through the 1999 survey that only 68% of responding officers were required to pass a certified training course prior to patrolling on a mountain bike. This number is still 32% too low! The cost of sending each officer to a certified class to be taught by a certified instructor far outweighs the potential liability costs the agency might have to pay later.
The mountain bike officer has many unique considerations and should be trained properly in such areas. The police cyclist must be able to conduct traffic stops in a fashion that minimizes risk of injury and property damage: Remember that there is no patrol car to rely on for cover, no emergency lights on top to warn approaching motorists, and no "safe lane" for the officer to approach the vehicle on the driver's side. An officer on a bike must be able to maneuver safely and legally in heavy traffic while patrolling as well as responding to emergency calls. He/she must be able to effectively use the bike as a defensive tool if need be.
An officer on a bicycle must know how to effectively and constantly use environmental cover and concealment, especially when approaching scenes, crimes in progress, and while conducting surveillance. He/she must be able to respond quickly to emergency calls: This takes on a whole new meaning when responding on a bike where physical exertion is high, versus in a patrol care where it is minimal. An officer arrives in a patrol car with fresh legs and a fresh dump of adrenaline, while the bike cop can expend a tremendous amount of energy just getting there! The bike officer must learn to "pace" himself and stay below his own anaerobic threshold2 so that when he dismounts, he can perform any duties that may be required (verbally and physically control a suspect, communicate with dispatch and other officers, accurately deliver force up to, and including, deadly force). Proper training is essential not only for the agency, but for the officer and the public as well.
A basic certification course should teach the officer about helmet and bicycle fit, a pre-flight equipment inspection and basic maintenance, high and low speed maneuvers, quick-mounts and dismounts, how to safely and legally maneuver in traffic, how to fall to avoid or minimize injury, nutrition and fitness, how to properly negotiate urban obstacles such as curbs, parking blocks, stairs (yes, riding up and down stairs!), safe and effective techniques to patrol at night, firearms training specific to police cyclists, legal issues, community policing, how to safely and tactically conduct traffic stops, suspect contacts, foot pursuit tactics, and take-downs after dismounting the bike. In some courses the officers must pull together all of the riding techniques learned during the week in a single-track, off-road ride where skill and confidence levels soar. Officers must then pass both practical and written tests to successfully complete the course and obtain certification. Most certified courses require at least 32 hours to provide adequate instruction and time to learn these basic techniques.
Refresher, Re-Certification, and Advanced Training
The 1999 survey revealed that only 27% attended some type of refresher, re-certification, or advanced training. This is an alarming statistic. Riding and maneuvering a bicycle in a police capacity requires a skill level above that of just "riding a bike," and these skills fall into the category of "use it or lose it." Just like anything else, police officers are held to a higher standard and are expected to be able to function at a higher level than that of civilians. They must be able to shoot with greater accuracy, have better defensive driving skills, have better communication skills, display more patience and restraint, and the list goes on.
According to the 1999 survey, the majority (64%) of agencies across the United States operate during the months of April through October, while only 29% patrol throughout the entire year. For most of those 64%, they probably don't ride throughout those winter months, so a refresher training day might be in order at the beginning of the season. The same holds true for those coming out of different assignments and returning to bike patrol. A re-certification each year may be a reasonable requirement, and may actually prevent unnecessary injury by identifying and correcting improper technique and improving skill level. Providing training days and offering advanced training can also be a source of rejuvenating enthusiasm for those mountain bike programs that seem to have stalled.
Is training an issue? For thousands of police cyclists throughout the world, the bicycle has become a mode of transportation. Even though it is an extremely complex skill, merely riding the bike is not the only issue. Officers must understand how to effectively utilize the bike as a tool while performing various duties. They must be trained not only in basic and advanced riding skills, but also in unique issues relevant to mountain bike patrol: emergency response, use of force, traffic stops, vehicle and foot pursuits, etc. The physiological effects of riding hard to a priority run are also important for the police cyclist to understand.
Training is an issue. It should be given a high priority by administration and should be provided by certified instructors. The department policy should be comprehensive and should address specific issues, so that those who patrol on mountain bikes are able to use the policy as a guide for their actions. In addition, officers should be properly pre-screened to avoid any unnecessary injury. As the numbers of public safety cyclists continue to grow, agencies should continue to train their personnel properly so they can perform their tasks safely and effectively.
1 "Plantar fasciitis" is inflammation of the plantar fascia. The plantar fascia is the ligament which originates on the heel bone, fans out along the bottom of the foot, and inserts on the ball and the toes. It provides support along the arch of the foot. Plantar fasciitis can be a common cyclist's injury when improper footwear is used on a regular basis. If a soft-soled shoe is worn, the foot will "bend" over the pedal when force is applied. Since the plantar fascia has no elastic properties, this can cause microtears in the ligament where it connects to the heel. Most cycling shoes have a steel shank along the sole of the shoe which prevents the foot from "bending" over the pedal, and evenly distributes the force over the length of the shoe when torque is applied to the pedal by the cyclist. Many police departments have issued cycling shoes to their police cyclists to prevent unnecessary injury to their officers, and to avoid worker's compensation claims of this nature.
2 "Anaerobic threshold" is the point at which blood lactate starts to accumulate. Lactate, or lactic acid is produced during extremely intense physical activity, or during anaerobic metabolism. Lactic acid begins to accumulate in the blood when the activity continues beyond the AT, because it cannot be buffered or removed from the blood quickly enough. Within a few minutes of working beyond the AT, a condition called metabolic acidosis occurs and the muscles will stop working at that level. If a police cyclist were to sprint to a scene well beyond his AT, chances are pretty good that he will fall when he exits the bike because of this build-up of lactic acid in his leg muscles, along with the depletion of the immediate stores of energy in his legs. They just won't work when he steps off the bike! To prevent this from happening, police cyclists are trained to ease up while riding to a call, when they start to feel the "burn" of the lactic acid in their legs. This should assure them that the lactic acid will not be excessive, and that there will be enough fuel left for their legs to properly carry them when they dismount the bike.
(c) 2000 ASLET. This article appeared in the September/October 2000 issue of the ASLET Trainer.