Vancouver Police Department resurrects bicycle officer unit

Vancouver police Officer Ed Letarte patrols Sixth Street in downtown Vancouver in July 2002. The police department is re-implementing the bike officer unit for the first time in nearly a decade. (Columbian files)

By Jerzy Shedlock, Columbian Breaking News Reporter

Published: September 1, 2018, 4:19 PM

Vancouver WA == The Vancouver Police Department is re-implementing its bicycle patrol unit — after being in limbo for more than a decade — on the heels of the official opening of The Waterfront Vancouver.

Officers on bicycles is nothing new for the city — the unit has existed off and on in one form or another since a pilot program kicked off in 1991.

“The bike unit was very effective. This is why (the specialty officers) are being brought back,” police department spokeswoman Kim Kapp said. “Bike officers can access certain areas more easily than the traditional patrol car, are more accessible to the public, can deploy quickly to certain areas and are trained to use their bicycles for different scenarios.”

The officers will attend training in mid-September, and equipment is being ordered. The goal is to have the officers patrolling by the end of the month.

When the pilot program began 27 years ago, law enforcement brass wanted to focus on downtown Vancouver. Alleyways, parking lots and parks not easily accessed by officers patrolling in their vehicles were checked over by the bike unit, which rode the streets on a part-time, crime-driven basis.

The police department recognized the value of a fully-staffed bike unit and built up its numbers in 1999 to eight full-time officers working year-round, regardless of weather conditions.

But when the local economy tanked in 2003, the police department put away the bikes for more traditional assignments due to staffing shortages.

Bicycle officers re-emerged in 2007 when two were assigned to what was dubbed the Downtown Revitalization Team. The team was established due to an increase in “transient activity” around Esther Short Park, Share House and the transit center, Kapp said.

The reinstatement of the officers only lasted for two years, again due to staffing shortages.

Downtown business owner and Vancouver’s Downtown Association President Linda Glover said when the bike officers had a presence in the past, they had a visible impact on the area.

“It was great because they talked with everyone and came into the stores and got to know people,” Glover said. “It increased contact with the public and the sense that they were there to help.”

When the officers went away, Glover said she felt a growing disconnect with the police department.

“I didn’t feel as informed about issues like graffiti or gang activity when they were happening,” she said.

With the upcoming completion of the waterfront project, the police department put four bike officers in its 2020 staffing plan.

In April 2016, then-Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt directed the formation of the Vancouver Police Department Community Resource Team, which consisted of 20 members, including three city councilors and others from local organizations, business coalitions and nonprofit agencies.

The team was tasked with submitting recommendations for the police department’s service level and funding. In an initial report in December 2016, it included four bike officers for deployment in 2017.

Glover, a member of the community resource team, said everyone was on board when they put the bicycle officers in the staffing plan.

In a revised staffing plan, the bike officers were shifted into this year. Last year, the police department instead added two traffic detectives and two property detectives.

“The plan has changed a bit in regards to positions being moved around based on department and community priorities,” Kapp said. “No new bodies have been added to the plan, just rearranging when they come online.”

The police department announced to staff in early August that there were open positions for bike officers and started taking applications. It doesn’t recruit outside its ranks for specialty positions so all of the candidates are internal. As of Aug. 27, there were seven interested officers.

The current plan calls for two squads with two officers each. That means they should be able to patrol seven days a week, according to Kapp.

The officers will likely ride bikes valued at $1,300 or more; the department previously used Rocky Mountain rigs, and it’s looking at three vendors this time around.

But are the officers worth the cost?

A major benefit of the bike unit, police say, is its accessibility to the public.

According to a 2006 study published by Roger Williams University titled “Examining the effectiveness of bicycle patrols versus automobile patrols in Charlotte, North Carolina and Hartford, Connecticut” did exactly what the name implies.

“(B)icycle patrols had a far greater amount of contact (with the public) when compared to the car patrols,” the study says.

It concluded that under leading community policing policies, closer relations with the public is the main objective, and bike patrol units provided those closer exposures and relationships.

Vancouver City Councilor Bart Hansen said he’s hopeful that the bike officers will exemplify those qualities when they start the job.

“We want to keep the trust factor high and the communications with the public open,” Hansen said of the officers.

“This might look like a small part of the (staffing) recommendations, but what is happening downtown with the increasing density, it’s a much needed piece of the puzzle. They’ll have the opportunity to quickly respond and act as a deterrent due to their presence,” he said.

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