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Pittsburgh Bike Cops on Track
By Jim Joyce
Brake. Creep two feet. Brake. Three feet. Brake. One foot. Brake...
A squad car inches little by little through a rush hour traffic jam in the heart of the big city. One lane ahead is closed for construction. A backhoe crawls across the street. Things are looking bleak. Traffic is going nowhere.
"Pop! Pop!" It's a gun! Two blocks ahead, the crowd on the sidewalk dives to the concrete. A restaurant door flies open and a man with a ski mask dashes onto the sidewalk, knocking over a trash can and an old newspaper vendor.
The squad car ignites the flashers. The siren blares. Cars try to edge out of the way. The squad car can't fit. It drives on to the sidewalk. Not enough room. An officer jumps out of the car. By this time the robber is three blocks away. He's gonna get away...
Whoa! A mountain bike bursts through an alley. It's a bike cop! He skirts the backhoe and squeezes through two standing cars. He mounts the sidewalk and speeds toward the criminal, now in a full run. He gets closer, closer. He drops the bike and dives on the culprit. In a second, the crook's face down, hands cuffed.
"There no traffic jam for you when you're
on a bike," says Frank Lewis, officer with the City of
Pittsburgh Police Bike Patrol. "There's always a sidewalk or
a space between two cars. That's dangerous, but in a priority
call you'll do it."
According to Lewis, such a scenario is quite possible. He says "mobility" is the greatest asset to the cop on a bicycle.
More Officers on Bikes
You can tell how much Lewis loves his work just by talking to him. He brims with enthusiasm and pride as he discusses all aspects of the job. He appears to really know his stuff. He's one of 16 officers on the city's bike patrol. The city recently expanded the force from a previous patrol of only one bike cop. Lewis says years of study and deliberation have resulted in a real commitment to the new force. He says Seattle was the first city to use bike patrols on a large scale. Why is such a force necessary and what are the advantages?
Mobility and Stealth
Second only to mobility is what Lewis refers to as "stealth." He says that unlike a squad car, a bike does not attract much attention and can be much more sneaky. He says it's easier for a bike cop to be unseen on approach and then surprise and apprehend a criminal. Even when criminals see a bicycle in the distance, Lewis says, it rarely occurs to them that it might be a police officer. "Because it's a bicycle," he says, "they usually don't realize it's the police until it's too late. They just don't expect it."
Terrain can sometimes be as tough as a criminal, especially in Pittsburgh, where there are steep hills and steeper hills. Lewis says that you get used to the hills but that the many stairways pose a real danger. To descend an unfamiliar stairway, says Lewis, you first approach it, stop at the edge, then plan the approach. Next, you turn around and go back several feet on the flat area. You then start again and continue down the first step without stopping. When descending, you sit back in your saddle as far as you safely can. This is definitely not recommended recreational riding and it requires intense training, says Lewis. But it does get you down those steps faster than running.
Bike cops can also be very useful at parades and other celebrations, where one is used to seeing mounted police. Lewis expects more bike patrol appearances at such events. In general, he says, "people are not used to seeing police on bikes. They'll become more familiar with us with time."
Teamwork and Familiarity Key
While it is important that citizens become more familiar with seeing officers on bikes, it is more important, says Lewis, that bike cops know every inch of the terrain of their beats. Unfamiliarity with an area is a "dangerous situation." This is why the city assigned the officers to the districts where they had already patroled by car or by foot.
Teamwork is key to safety in high crime areas, says Lewis. "We work very much on a team concept and work to cover each other in dangerous situations. We can run into a 'fight or flight' situation and we have to be ready for either." Lewis says because of the teaming of partners on bikes he does not feel he is in any more danger than when he is in a squad car.
To learn how to descend stairs and many other high level mountain bike skills required in this rugged urban environment, Lewis and his partners took the 40-hour International Police Mountain Bike Association (IPMBA) certification course. It was conducted for them in Pittsburgh.
The neighborhoods of Pittsburgh make for some challenging cycling but Lewis feels he and his partners are improving with time. When asked about challenging other cities' bike cops Lewis says with a chuckle: "I'm looking forward to the competition. We'll be ready."
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