Three men on hefty mountain bicycles pedaling around in tentative circles in a tiny, coned-off square yesterday looked a little like too many gerbils packed onto a running wheel.
It was comical -- the officers wobbled, bumped each other and rammed the cones. But fun aside, the circles are an essential maneuvering trick that Anne Arundel County police officers must master for bike patrol.
"I didn't know we were going to have to do all this," said Officer John Yang of the Western District as he waited his turn for another try at the square. "I thought we were just going to ride around the streets and stuff. I haven't ridden since high school."
The police bicycle classes, conducted twice a year, are being held at Anne Arundel Community College's Arnold campus this week. Police began this year's classes yesterday with about 30 officers from Maryland Transportation Authority, military, park and county police.
The officers spent a few hours watching a video on bike riding and learning about maneuvering a two-wheeled vehicle before heading for a parking lot to practice such wicked moves as weaving through a serpentine obstacle course, jumping bikes onto curbs and racing up and down steps -- all the things their mothers probably told them never to do.
Such skills are increasingly important. Police departments across the country have formed or beefed up bike patrol units in recent years, said Jennifer Horan, director of the Washington-based International Police Mountain Bike Association.
"In general, arrest statistics went up and crimes went down wherever bike patrols were introduced," said Horan. Her organization's membership of bike patrol officers has jumped from 60 to 2,800 in the six years it has been around, she said.
"It's an incredibly effective policing tool," Horan said. "And inexpensive. You can provide 12 officers with uniforms, a bike and equipment for the price of one [patrol] car."
In Anne Arundel, bike patrol officers have made more than 100 arrests this year, said Lt. James Fahrman, one of the bike instructors. He said most of them were for possession of drugs.
The county's patrol comprises two full-time officers and close to 90 others who patrol on bikes in addition to their regular duties. But when officers began bouncing around the idea of forming a bike patrol in 1992, many were less than enthusiastic -- only 10 officers signed up, said Cpl. Michael Belcher, one of the two full-timers.
"It was a perception, I guess, that it's an infringement on your manhood to be taken out of a police car and put on a bike," Belcher said. "But now, we have to turn people away from the class."
Belcher said bikes are more effective than patrol cars for sneaking up on suspects, surveillance, patrolling alleys and narrow streets, and chasing teen-age vandals on bike trails.
Officer Richard Thorne, a Maryland Transportation Authority officer assigned to the airport, said he and three other officers plan to start patrolling the airport parking garages with bikes.
"We can get in between parked vehicles," Thorne said.
Bikes also offer an incidental camouflage in that many people don't suspect bike riders of being police officers, said Officer Eric Gennett, Belcher's full-time partner.
"Even though we've been out there for six years, people still don't put bikes and police together," said Gennett, who is based in the Northern District. "It's happened more than once that they'll see us watching them and they'll roll a joint in front of us HTC and start smoking it. They just don't realize we're cops until it's too late."
Three years ago, when the bike patrol class was on a practice ride along the B&A Trail, a woman rushed up to them saying she had been molested. The newly initiated bike officers caught the alleged molester, who had run off, within minutes, Fahrman said.
Gennett said such captures have earned bike patrol officers respect in the community and questions about whether their jobs are like USA Network's series "Pacific Blue," which is about the daring escapades of a bike patrol unit.
"It's a good show, but it's a joke," Gennett said, rolling his eyes. "Those bike patrol guys are jumping on rails and jumping over cars. Are you kidding?"
Pub Date: 4/08/98