I’VE BEEN THINKING about police patrol patterns and public safety lately, and not because I suggested increased parking rates and metering on nights and weekends might not be crimes against humanity.
I’m pleased to report I did not need to hire a security detail in the wake of my column on the City of Savannah’s Parking Matters draft recommendations. I’ve been accosted just a couple of times and friends are only slightly hesitant to be seen with me in public.
No, what has me thinking about law enforcement strategies is Savannah-Chatham Metropolitan Police Department Chief Joseph Lumpkin’s remarks about expanding bicycle patrols at the Downtown Neighborhood Association’s March 23 Public Safety Forum.
Using bicycles to patrol dense urban areas where traffic congestion sometimes occurs is effective policing, according to Maureen Becker, executive director of the Baltimore-based International Police Mountain Bike Association.
Its name might sound like a recreational bicycle club for police officers, but the organization has a more practical purpose.
It is “a nonprofit association dedicated to promoting the use of bikes for public safety.” Founded in 1992, IPMBA “has trained tens of thousands of public safety professionals in safe and effective police, EMS, and security bicycle operations.”
Shorter response times in environments like downtown Savannah are only one of the tactical advantages bikes provide to police officers.
Those engaged in criminal endeavors can post lookouts to watch for Five-O rolling up in a squad car. However, they may totally miss cops using other modes of transport.
“Bike patrol officers are often able to approach suspects virtually unnoticed, even in full uniform,” according to the IPMBA website.
The dynamic is different when it comes to law-abiding citizens, who find officers on bikes more visible and accessible. Imagine an idling police car with its windows up. Might you be apprehensive about walking up and knocking on the window to get the officer’s attention?
By contrast, an officer on a bicycle is much more approachable and easier to flag down to ask a question or report suspicious activity, said Becker.
Observations of police departments in five cities conducted by Roger Williams University criminal justice professor Chris Menton found, “The average number of people in contact with the police per hour was 10.5 for motor patrols and 22.8 for bicycle patrols.”
Bicycle officers had a significantly higher amount of “non-serious,” contacts but Menton cautions against concluding police on bikes are engaged in public relations efforts, while motor units handle more urgent matters.
“Serious contacts, taken alone for both modes of patrol, were not significantly different,” he writes. “This means the number of serious contacts by a police officer on a bicycle are similar to the number a police officer will have in a car.”
Time spent in a patrol car can not only reduce beneficial interactions with the public, it can also affect how police officers view certain members of the public.
In his book “Bicycling & the Law,” attorney and author Bob Mionske devotes considerable attention to anti-cycling bias among police, which can skew traffic enforcement and prejudice crash investigations.
Mionske identifies multiple causes of anti-cycling bias, including this: “One inescapable reality is that despite the fact that many police departments have bike patrols, most police officers are motorists and view the world from that perspective,” he writes. “And maybe some officers hold the societal view that roads are for cars, period.”
The good news is putting more officers on bikes means they’ll likely have more empathy for their fellow cyclists.
“A police officer on a bicycle, particularly one who has been through a professional training program, will have firsthand knowledge of the types of situations cyclists find themselves in and will understand their vulnerability,” Becker said.
That’s tremendously important in Savannah, which has the highest rate of bicycle commuting in Georgia.
And we shouldn’t stop with the cops. All sorts of public officials and business leaders could gain insight from trying transportational cycling. Even those who are recreational cyclists often don’t see the full picture of what it’s like to depend on a bicycle for transportation.
It’s one thing to go for a Sunday afternoon ride on a route of your selection. Having to ride to a workplace, class, doctor’s appointment or other destination on a bike-unfriendly street at 8 a.m. on a Monday morning is entirely different.
At Savannah State University’s Urban Planning Conference last week, one attendee suggested a bicycle program based on Step Up Savannah’s Poverty Simulation. This experiential learning program has helped many understand the barriers faced by local families living in poverty. Pedaling a mile (or more) in someone else’s shoes would be similarly enlightening.