After testing the machines, Bel Air police plan to roll out a pair of Segways to aid officers on patrol

Department takes scooters for a spin

March 03, 2006|By JUSTIN FENTON | JUSTIN FENTON,SUN REPORTER

"Stop, or I'll scoot!"

Aiming to bolster foot patrols, the Bel Air Police Department has purchased two Segway transporters, the futuristic self-balancing scooters that have been a dud with consumers but are becoming increasingly popular with law enforcement and security officers.

Officers will be able to use their new $4,500 rides for the first time today at the parade honoring 16-year-old Olympian Kimmie Meissner of Bel Air before officially rolling them out April 1 as part of an initiative to police the after-hours bar crowd on Main Street.

More than 75 police departments and private security agencies nationwide use Segways, the scooter's manufacturer said, including several in Maryland.

Bel Air Police Chief Leo Matrangola was intrigued by the scooters after seeing officers from the Maryland Transportation Authority, which has had eight of the machines since 2004, respond to an incident at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.

"Some of the officers hoofed it on foot, but the one on the Segway got there way ahead of them," Matrangola said.

Annapolis' police and fire departments and Johns Hopkins University police also use Segways. The Gaithersburg Police Department has been testing them since last month and is considering a purchase.

Unveiled in 2001, the Segway seems more George Jetson than Joe Friday, and competitors say it is too expensive and has limited practical use for the average consumer.

But in law enforcement circles, the scooters are becoming a hot commodity, said David Griffith, editor of Police Magazine, a trade publication for law enforcement officers. Officers who have used them say the motorized machines - which raise the user several inches off the ground - help them see over crowds and allow them to cover more ground without getting winded.

"The most common places where Segways are being used are in heavy tourist areas, such as airports or shopping malls," Griffith said. "They are a good way to augment foot patrols."

Griffith said Segways seem unusual now but noted that bicycle patrols, once restricted largely to beach areas, have become a preferred patrol option for police in downtown areas, parks and plazas.

Alex Campbell, a spokesman for ZAP, a Santa Rosa, Calif.,-based maker of alternative transportation devices, said his company focused its early marketing efforts on police departments and the Postal Service as a way to gain exposure for its electronic scooters and bikes. Segways' price tag has scared off potential buyers outside government agencies, he said.

"It's too expensive," he said. "I applaud Segway. I think there will always be a place for new technology. But there is the California approach and there is the MIT approach. We wouldn't want to reinvent the wheel."

Because Segways are not in the mainstream, the novelty factor has its advantages for police. A company pamphlet advertises the machine as the "the ultimate icebreaker."

It certainly beats riding horses or bikes.

"Normally, when you're on foot patrol, strangers aren't apt to walk up to a police officer and just to start a conversation," said MTA Lt. Richard Ricko, who trained two Bel Air officers to use the Segway at BWI yesterday. "An officer who's on the Segway - that is a conversation starter."

The company also allows departments to sample the product before buying. The Annapolis police department has been able to use its Segways free because the officers who use them make sales pitches for the company throughout the country, said police spokesman Kevin Freeman.

Relatively easy to master, officers say, the machines rely on balance. When the rider leans forward, sensors and gyroscopes tell the battery-powered motors to spin the wheels faster to keep the machine from tipping over. When the rider stands straight, the vehicle stops, and when the rider leans backward, the wheels spin in reverse.

The Segway, which can go 12 1/2 mph, is turned by a steering grip that tells one wheel or the other to move faster. Segways are battery-powered, give off no emissions, and must be recharged every 15 miles.

Matrangola said Bel Air will use its two Segways as part of an effort to address increasing complaints about the behavior of bar patrons on Main Street.

To pay for the scooters and overtime for officers, Matrangola said, he has pieced together a grant from the state's Office of Crime Control and Prevention, donations from Main Street tavern owners and money from his department and the town government.

Matrangola said he will evaluate the effectiveness of the machines and the overall initiative this summer.

Not everyone is enthusiastic about the scooters.

"We have no plans to purchase any of those," said Robert B. Thomas, a spokesman for the Harford County sheriff's office, which has its headquarters on Main Street. "God bless the Bel Air police, but we have other patrol needs."

justin.fenton@baltsun.com

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