Bel Air police officers assigned to the new bike patrol say their two wheels give them two advantages in fighting crime: mobility and theelement of surprise.
"In one of our first arrests, we rode up behind a shoplifter. He didn't know we were there until we were right beside him," said Officer Kevin Thomas, who was on patrol with Officer Ben Lay Jr. recently.
"He looked up and you could see the look on his face: 'Oh, you'rea cop.' "
The bike patrol is part of an experimental program aimed at fighting drug and alcohol abuse in shopping areas along the business section of U.S. 1.
The program is being paid for through a $20,000 federal grant that helped defray the cost of the two custom-built mountain bikes, designed specifically for traversing rough terrainlike forest paths.
Thomas, Lay and officers Scott Virden and Peggy Pfarr make up the patrol.
The officers, who requested the assignment, ride in pairs on four-hour evening shifts in addition to working their regular shifts.
An incident last Thursday, illustrated howthe bicycle team works in tandem with officers on car and foot patrol.
When the call came in that youth had scared a pedestrian by swerving a car toward the woman, Thomas and Lay had been patrolling the section of U.S. 1 near Hayes Street. They began pedaling toward Tollgate Mall, the site of the alleged incident. They arrived seconds after Virden and Pfarr, who were patrolling in a car.
As Virden took the report, foot patrol Officer Rene Kelley followed suspect, a teen-age driver, and friends through the mall.
Pfarr, in the police car,and Thomas on his cycle, circled to the back of the mall to watch the rear exit. Meanwhile Lay, keeping his bike handy, staked out the suspect's car.
Kelly, Pfarr and Thomas quickly trapped the driver ofthe car and his friends on a stairwell at the back of the mall. OnceVirden had arrested and handcuffed the driver, Thomas and Lay were back on their bikes, pedaling on patrol.
The bikes give the officers the advantage of being able to split up when chasing a suspect, Thomas said -- and the ability to chase suspects where cars can't go.
Earlier Thursday evening Thomas had pointed out an old dirt construction road that comes out on Atwood Road.
"There's a trail back there that people use to escape from behind Bel Air Plaza," said Thomas,pointing to the dirt road marked with fresh tire tracks. "They park there, and then after a snatch and grab (robbing a cash register), run into the woods behind the mall and come back here, get in their carand take off."
As part of their patrol, the officers stop and chat with teens. They also stake out liquor stores to spot people buyingalcoholic beverages for teens.
"We look for drugs and alcohol, shoplifting, driving and parking violations," said Thomas.
During most of the four-hour shift, the pace is strenuous and the cycling sometimes tricky. The officers have been taking classes at Chesapeake Cycle Designs to hone their skills.
"Everybody assumes they know how to ride a bike because they've been riding since they were 5 years old," said Murray Davis, the officers' cycling instructor. "I teach them how to descend stairs on the bikes, jump obstacles, and how to holda straight line while looking right or left. And because you have two people riding together, I have them practice bumping drills so theycan learn to stay on the bike."
However, the fact that most people have been riding bikes since they were youngsters works to the officers' advantage as they patrol neighborhoods and try to develop a rapport with residents.
For example, on Thursday, Lay and Thomas werestopped several times by people who wanted to know more about their bikes.
"The first encounter most people have with police isn't always nice," said Pfarr. "Or they have a fear of police for whatever their personal reason may be. This allows us to be perceived more warmly. We are very, very human, and we have the same wants and needs as everyone else."