Bicycles are a critical resource for countless police departments. In recent years, many law enforcement agencies have rolled out bicycle patrol units as a way to connect to their communities. But the concept is not new.
It’s believed that the earliest use of a bicycle by a police officer was in 1869, when an Illinois sheriff reportedly supplied himself and his deputies with boneshakers — the earliest pedal bicycles, made of iron and wood. That’s according to a paper published in 2006, written by Ross D. Petty of Babson College. Since the 1800s, the use of bicycles for policing has risen, with agencies reaping numerous benefits.
These can include cost savings and better connections to local communities, Syracuse, New York, Patrol Services Commander Capt. James Milana told Government Fleet.
Closing the Gap Between Officers and Citizens
Putting officers on bicycles allows them to be closer to the communities they are protecting — literally.
“Police cars, while necessary, create a gap between the police and the public,” Milana explained. “Utilizing bicycles for patrol helps to eliminate that gap and fosters positive interactions.”
This is something the International Police Mountain Bike Association (IPMBA) noted. An officer on a bike is more approachable than one in a patrol car, Green Bay, Wisconsin, Police Commander of Operations Kevin Warych said. Green Bay PD has both pedal bicycles and e-bikes. Officers can use them to patrol anywhere from off-road areas like hiking trails, to Packers games at Lambeau Field or simply in neighborhoods.
"By having pedal bikes, it's less intrusive. It encourages conversation, Warych explained. "When people are mowing their lawn or watering their flowers, the officer rides by [and] engages in that conversation. You wouldn't get that on a motorcycle or in a squad car."
A lack of informal interactions can negatively impact police-community relations. At a time when many police departments often face criticism, these connections are crucial for officers.
"We have to establish that connection with the community so that we can have that open dialogue. So if something does occur in that community, they know who we are. That citizen-police interaction is probably one of the most valuable things that an officer encounters on a daily basis," Warych added.
Furthermore, patrol vehicles can be attributed with negative perceptions from the general public, with overwhelming flashing lights, and even long response times. These are not typically associated with bicycle officers.
Cutting Costs with Bicycle Patrols
E-bikes are a popular choice for bicycle patrols. E-bikes are bicycles that are fitted with electric motors, making them capable of traveling longer distances without officers needing to put in as much work on the pedals. While more expensive than traditional bicycles, e-bikes are still substantially more cost effective than patrol vehicles.
The average cost per bike for an officer is roughly $1,200, according to IPMBA. That’s a very small fraction of the cost of a traditional vehicle. Maintenance costs are also generally lower for bicycles.
Bicycles also allow agencies to save on fuel, Milana said.
Additionally, bicycles are environmentally friendly, producing no fossil fuel waste or emissions. They are 18 times more energy efficient than an SUV, and 13 times more energy efficient than a sedan, according to Fuze.
Bicycles also require less parking space.
Making Patrolling More Accessible
Bicycle patrols are a “force multiplier,” helping officers reach places that are not easily accessible to vehicles, like parks, crowded places, and college campuses, Jeff Fuze of Recon Power Bikes said. In times where officers need to apprehend someone, they can do so more safer and more efficiently, particularly on e-bikes. They don’t arrive on scene winded or fatigued. Additionally, bicycles allow officers to respond to incidents more quickly, helping them avoid traffic slowdowns.
Bicycles can also reach rugged or off-road places, something Fuze calls “all terrain patrol.” E-bikes can take on curbs and handle stairs without officers worrying about getting a pinch flat, like they would with a standard mountain bike tire.
In Petty’s paper, “The Rise, Fall and Rebirth of Bicycle Police,” he noted that bicycles also have an advantage because they are quiet and not as easily noticed, allowing for a more stealth incident response when needed.
Fuze also pointed out that bicycle officers can use all of their senses to detect illegal activity. When they are not in patrol vehicles, officers are more likely to hear disturbances like gunshots, screaming, and other sounds that can lead them to potential crimes.
Bike patrols can be integrated to serve other purposes as well — like targeted enforcement, surveillance, traffic enforcement, and maintaining public order.
The Saranac Lake, New York, Police Department recently took delivery of new e-bikes for its officers with the goal of using them for community policing. The town's landscape offers many opportunities for outdoor activities like hiking, biking, and paddling. The e-bikes allow officers to have better access to patrol outdoor areas.
Don’t Forget to Train Officers
Training an officer to work in a bicycle patrol is different than simply training them how to ride a bike. Public safety officers must ride where they are needed. In some cases, that can mean riding in extremely heavy traffic or other challenging situations, IPMBA noted.
Additionally, police cyclists must know what tactics to use in a pursuit and how to dismount quickly but safely to perform an arrest or fire their sidearm.
Officers must also learn to manage incident response even when they are exerted from riding a bike.
Another thing bicycle officers must remember: they share the roadway with motorists and follow the same rules and laws.
“It is important to always be vigilant for bicyclists and extend them the same courtesy you would to another vehicle,” Milana said.
Getting Stakeholders Onboard
Despite the heap of benefits of bicycles patrols, only about one-third of law enforcement agencies who responded to the most recent Law Enforcement Management and Administrative Statistics, conducted by the U.S. Department of Justice, said that they use bicycle patrols “as needed.” About 6% of those surveyed said they use bicycles on a regular basis.
Fuze’s advice for convincing stakeholders, county commissioners or city councilmembers in most cases, is to focus on how efficient they are.
“With today’s staffing issues you can cover a larger area, with more frequency on an e-bike. All with a fewer number of officers. Add in the fact [e-bikes] are a green EV making them a win-win both on the policing side and for the environment,” Fuze said.
Petty estimates that there were between 8,000 and 11,000 bicycle officers in 1917 — at the high point of police bicycle use. While that number is much lower today, the benefits of bicycle patrols some 100+ years ago remain the same — and then some — given the added benefits of e-bikes.