Police pedal where cars lag

SUN JOURNAL

Bicycles: Law enforcement agencies increasingly patrol on two thin wheels to control crowds and slip through traffic.

January 02, 2004|By Stacey Hirsh | Stacey Hirsh,SUN STAFF

MIAMI - Not so long ago, the Miami bicycle patrol was hardly noticed within its own police department: There were few sources of money to buy and maintain bicycles and even fewer officers to ride them.

But all of that changed when John F. Timoney, 55, became Miami's police chief in January last year. Now, the police officers in Miami have uses for their bicycles that stretch well beyond a ride to work or a way to chase suspects: They use them as barricades to control crowds, shields to protect themselves or even as weapons.

"I think they're very, very effective," says Timoney. "The cops like them, the public loves them. It's much more personalized than a police officer riding in a car."

And it seems hundreds of other police chiefs would agree. The idea of police department bicycle patrols has been gaining momentum since 1987, when officers in Seattle who were frustrated because the city's traffic slowed their response time began using mountain bikes to answer calls. By 2000, 43 percent of America's local police departments were using bicycle patrols, compared with 28 percent in 1997, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.

"The bicycle is just continuing to become more well-integrated into routine police activities," says Maureen Becker, director of the International Police Mountain Bike Association in Baltimore.

When Timoney came to Miami to head its Police Department, he arrived with a cyclist's reputation. He began his career as a foot cop in New York City in 1969 and later pedaled his way through Philadelphia when he ran the police department there from 1998 to 2002.

His department in Philadelphia was the first to tactically control demonstrations and protest parades on bicycles when his officers policed the 2000 Republican National Convention, he says. And Timoney was in the middle of it - at one point having a bicycle hurled at him by a protester.

Since Timoney brought his wheels to Miami, that department's bicycle patrol has grown in size and significance.

The number of officers on bike patrol has doubled to 80 in less than a year. The patrol recently bought a fleet of 64 bicycles. And its annual budget for this fiscal year has jumped to $30,000, up from $5,000 in years past, says Lt. Ricardo Roque, who has been on the Miami police force for 24 years and spent the past three as commander of the bicycle detail.

"They have realized that it's a tremendous tool in the community, every aspect of it - in doing arrests, community policing, community relations," Roque says.

Some of Miami's officers ride their black or white bikes to work and spend the day on them, while others keep the bicycles on a rack on their patrol car and use them to pass through neighborhoods on their beat during downtime.

Requirements for getting onto the bike patrol have become tougher as the team has grown in prestige.

The department now demands that officers pass an agility test and are in good shape just to train for the patrol. Then, there is a mandatory, 40-hour intensive training class to qualify for the bicycle unit.

"We teach the officers everything about a bike: the shift, the brake, everything that has to do with the bike," Roque says. "Then we go into a lot of techniques of taking down the subject, how to use the bike as a weapon. ... We teach them how to be smart while the bicycles are moving. We teach them how to take the fall if somebody pushes them."

Many of those lessons were put to the test in November in what was perhaps the biggest challenge yet for the Miami Police Department's bicycle patrol. As trade ministers from 34 countries came to Miami to negotiate an outline for a Free Trade Area of the Americas, or FTAA, that would lift tariffs everywhere in the Western Hemisphere except Cuba, tens of thousands of protesters descended on the city for the week to oppose them.

It was the first time Miami police had used their bike patrol to control protesters, and about 80 bicycle patrol officers joined forces with more than 40 local, state and federal law enforcement agencies to police the city.

"I don't think in any other previous administration the bike would have been used," Roque says.

As trade ministers worked at the fenced-in Intercontinental Hotel in downtown Miami, protesters filled the city's hotels and set up camp in a vacant warehouse. They made giant puppets and posters that condemned the FTAA. They marched along Miami's palm tree-lined Biscayne Boulevard, shouting their message through the jam-packed streets.

On one blustery afternoon, police used their bicycles to fence in a crowd of steelworkers who shouted "let them go" as officers lined a group of pedestrians up against a storefront as though they might be arrested and searched their bags. On other days, the bicycles could be seen whizzing through downtown. One morning about dawn, dozens of officers filled a McDonald's restaurant, their bicycles lined up at racks outside.

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