Use of Force: The Impact of Your Bike

Use of Force: The Impact of Your Bike

By Michael Wear, PCI #516T/EMSCI #059T
Metropolitan Police Department (DC)

The bicycle patrol officer is often in the midst of contact with citizens.  Empirical data show that bike officers have more citizen contact than conventional automobile patrols, as reported in Bicycle Patrols: An Underutilized Resource.

“Analysis of these data provides evidence that bicycle patrols result in over twice as much contact with the public compared with automobile patrols. The field observation perspective revealed clear tactical advantages to bicycle patrols.”  (Menton, 2008)

The role of the bike officer is frequently equated with Community Policing activities, but bike officers are involved in nearly all aspects of law enforcement, ranging from traffic stops to fatal confrontations.  Like any other law enforcement agent, the bicycle officer will use force.  The difference lies in the choice of tools or weapons available to confront a suspect.  It is possible to have “shots fired…spray deployed…baton strikes…in pursuit-got one running” and so on.  Each of these activities requires training.  Officers prepare for a variety of engagements with specific applications in the deployment of methods/techniques/skills, accompanied by a distinct written policy.

“Law enforcement officers are authorized to use force in specified circumstances, are trained in the use of force, and typically face numerous circumstances during their careers when use of force is appropriate.”  (Justice, 1999)

Police officers make the news daily with coverage ranging from fouled crime fighting measures to events whose notoriety stems from the simple reason that a police officer was involved.  When an officer uses force, the interest level shoots to the top of the scale and the department swoops in to seek answers.  Depending on the incident, training records are pulled, policies examined and the officer’s performance history meticulously analyzed.

Police agencies reasonably must assess the liability and consequences of the actions of their personnel.  A department has a responsibility to the officer, the law enforcement jurisdictional authority, and the public.  When an officer uses force, an attempt will be made to determine if the officer used the appropriate amount of force for the situation and if the actions were justified.  There lies the problem: what is the appropriate amount of force in a given situation?  Most, if not all, agencies provide extensive training in the “Big Three” liabilities:  firearms, vehicle skills, and use of force.  Few law enforcement practitioners would argue that use of force is not a major liability, and it would be difficult to find a recognized police agency that lacks a use of force policy or doctrine, supported by training.

Canton v. Harris, 489 US 378 (1989), is clearly the benchmark case setting legal precedence pertaining to “failure to train”.  Given the findings and the disposition of the case, professional law enforcement agencies in the United States can no longer fail to provide required training or provide training of diminished quality.  The requirements now articulate exactly how to adequately prepare, conduct, and document training for police personnel.

Departments can and should take measures to insulate themselves against failure-to-train lawsuits.  Administrators must ensure their training programs are current and effective, demand that training be incorporated into the department’s yearly calendar and thoroughly document all training. An effective training program can be the difference between dismissal of a suit and a serious judgment against an agency.  (McNamara, 2006)


Let’s put this to the test in a simple “JRA” (Just Riding Along) scenario involving a certified police cyclist:

JRA, Officer Fista and Officer Cuffs observe a young male suspect snatch a purse from an elderly woman who falls to the ground, visibly injured.  Officer Fista follows the prescribed protocol:  broadcast the team’s location, request medical aid, declare the type of incident, and flash lookout the suspect’s description with direction of travel.  Officer Cuffs responds directly to the victim to render medical attention.  The suspect spots Officer Fista and the pursuit is on.  Officer Fista follows, broadcasting his movements and quickly moving in on the suspect due to his mechanical advantage. 

While closing the distance on bike, Officer Fista issues verbal commands, but the suspect refuses to comply, instead turning to confront the officer. 

Officer Fista perceives that an impact weapon will be required for this take down, but not deadly force.

What can Officer Fista do within his current policy and use of force doctrine?

Officer Fista decides to utilize a sliding/hooking motion of the rear wheel to purposefully strike the suspect with his bike.

Now, you get into Officer Fista’s saddle and see how your policy rides the following obstacles.

“Officer, when were you certified to use the police bicycle as a weapon?”

“Officer, when did you last qualify with the police bicycle as a weapon?”

“Officer, did you intentionally use a specific technique in which you were trained to take down the suspect?”

How did you and your department do?

These questions may complicate the justification of Officer Fista’s actions if he has not received adequate or sanctioned training.  This brief scenario cannot answer all the questions running through your head, but the intent of this exercise is to provoke thought.  A police officer will react to a given situation based on training, experience and ability.  The key to this scenario is the training.

Officer Fista chose to impact the suspect with a police bicycle, which can be a reasonable action.  Many officers will rise to the defense of Officer Fista, arguing, “He had no choice but to strike him with the bike.  He didn’t have time to do anything else”.  In a case of deadly force, this defense would be viable, given the supporting condition of a life-saving measure, when no other trained option was available for deployment.  However, in this scenario, the intent is to present a situation in which an impact weapon is the most likely force option.  Only by removing “any form of defense, device or tactic” and presenting the specific need for an impact weapon can the officer justify the actions.

The scenario is designed to identify whether the action taken was or was not a “trained response”.  The IPMBA Police Cyclist Course includes a similar movement, the power – or hook – slide.  However, when taught by IPMBA, the skill is not a weapon strike.  It is specifically used to stop quickly and/or turn 180 degrees.  Variations of this skill often involve sliding or hooking the rear wheel, and potentially utilizing it to strike an object or suspect.  These include such bike-strike movements as “bike fighting” (strikes with various parts of the bike), “wheelie-up” (strikes with the front wheel), “barrier/herding” (forcibly directing the bike into a suspect), and “Ghost Rider” (propelling the bike unmanned into a suspect).

It should be noted that Officer Fista chose his movement and action as a weapon strike and, for the best outcome, should have had training and/or certification prior to actual deployment.

Does your agency train bike officers on the use of the bicycle as an impact weapon?  When faced with a confrontation, can you articulate your actions within the scope of your training and departmental requirements?  Many agencies accept training and certification by outside organizations.  Prior to the deployment of a new technique, you must ensure approval to use it.  The time to answer the above questions is before, not after, an incident. What is or will be required of the individual officer in the form of continuing education, skills training, qualification, or renewal of certification?

To best defend an officer’s actions, the use of force should be clearly defined.  The movement and its proper execution should be covered in a written outline or other format that meets the departmental requirement for documentation and training.  The use and deployment of specific techniques for force must meet the agency’s current policy or departmental doctrine. 

Many departments have a prescribed method/format for reporting use of force involving firearms, baton, OC spray or less than lethal.  Bicycle applications can be included as an action, response, strike, strike zone and or specifically with the description of a weapon utilized in given situation.   Department policies will vary dramatically from coast to coast, but the need for documented training is across the board.

Back to Officers Fista and Cuffs

There are several possible outcomes for Officer Fista and Cuffs.  The predictions for the final outcome of a real-life situation are difficult at best and litigation is likely.  The fact is that law enforcement officers are required to use force, their actions will have consequences, and the requirements for justification must be met.  The examination of the bicycle within any force continuum provides for a broad scope of discretion and opinion.
When faced with the liability for individual actions or departmental financial responsibilities, will you and your department clear this obstacle, crash and burn, or simply use some landing techniques?

Works Cited
Department of Justice (1999, October). https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdfiles1/nij/176330-1.pdf.  ; Retrieved December 5, 2011.
McNamara (2006) from https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdfiles1/nij/176330-1.pdf: https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdfiles1/nij/176330-1.pdf.
Menton, C. (2008, May 28). Associate Professor. (M. A. Wear, Interviewer).

Mike Wear is a 21-year veteran of the Metropolitan Police Department, Washington DC.  He joined the MPD mountain bike unit in 1992 and in 1997 became the first city-wide mountain bike coordinator and training supervisor.  He was certified as an IPMBA Police Cyclist in 1998, an instructor in 2001, and an instructor trainer in 2008.   

© 2012 IPMBA.  This article appeared in the Winter 2012 issue of IPMBA News.

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