The bicycle, the bicycle surely,
should always be the vehicle
of novelists and poets.
Last week I got to see another dimension of the bicycle — a crime-fighter’s steed. I also had the pleasure of watching nearly 2 dozen people transform from novice cyclists to proficient bike handlers. On day one, they struggled to get into their toe clips. By day 4, they were doing cyclocross dismounts and running with their bikes up stairs without breaking stride.
A little history
We started out Monday morning in the classroom. Orlando Police Department’s (OPD) in-service training coordinator, Master Police Officer Bill Edgar, gave us a brief overview of the history of police bicycle use.
Bicycles were widely used by urban police forces in the late 1800s but were replaced by cars, as motor vehicles pushed out human and animal-powered vehicles on urban roads. The City of Baltimore conducted a short experiment with police on bikes in the 70s, but discontinued it. The bicycle was revived as the modern police mountain bike in 1987 in Seattle.
OPD proposed its own bike patrol plan in 1990 but was turned down by the city. In a twist of fate, not long after that an Orlando City Commissioner was mugged while visiting Seattle. A bike patrol officer responded and apprehended the perpetrator. Soon enough, Orlando had a bike squad.
The right tool for the job
The bike patrol is a crime-fighting unit. They don’t do traffic. The bike gives the officer an advantage over foot or car patrol. The bike is fast, quiet and maneuverable. An officer on a bike can see, hear and smell the environment around him. A bike can go where a car or motorcycle can’t. A bicyclist can cover a lot of ground and much faster than a person on foot. The mountain bikes they use can operate in tight spaces, jump curbs and go up and down stairs.
The object of this course is to teach officers to maximize the use of this powerful law enforcement tool. But first, they have to learn the basics of everything from nutrition to bike handling.
Repetitive stress injuries
Anyone who has ventured into distance riding has experienced the backlash of a poor bike fit. The most common problem is knee pain. But a poorly-adjusted or ill-fitting bike can hurt just about any part of your body. The student workbook goes into detail about the various repetitive stress injuries, their causes (in bike fit or riding style), how to heal them and how to prevent them.
Ofc. Edgar addressed the painful results of the three most common problems: saddle too low, saddle tipped down and shoes that lack proper stiffness.
There’s so much more to cycling than balancing a bike. You can get away with a lot if you’re just hopping on the bike for a mile here or there. But even minor fit problems can become painful injuries when you add time and distance.
Fitness and nutrition
A number of officers select the bike patrol as a way to retain or recover fitness. It can’t be easy to spend 12 hours a day sitting in a car. And it’s unlikely you’re going to feel like working out after a 12-hour shift.
Spending 12 hours a day on a bike and possibly having to sprint to a call requires fitness and nutrition management. Master Police Officer Dave Pierce gave an excellent presentation that covered the bases from target heart rate to glycemic index.
Dehydration could be a serious problem for bike patrol officers, too — especially in hot and humid climates, where you can lose several liters of sweat per hour. The police bike ed program has the same mantra as the civilian program: drink before you’re thirsty, eat before you’re hungry.
Group riding protocol
Because the class traveled from location to location by bike, the officers had to learn to ride in an orderly paceline. They had to learn to transition from a single to a double line and back, to rotate riders from front to back and to change lanes as a group.
Ofc. Edgar explained the bike bus concept for stop-sign compliance — stopping as a single unit and proceeding as a single unit. In practice, the front riders stop (and yield to other traffic as necessary), then proceed. Sometimes the rear riders do not actually come to a stop before the group is moving again. However, all riders must be in contact with the group (not 20 feet behind it). While this is not strictly in compliance with the letter of the law, it complies with the spirit of the law. It is safer and better for traffic flow than stopping individually. In my experience, most PDs allow groups to proceed through an intersection en masse if the front riders actually comply with the stop signs. Problems start when packs of recreational riders blow through stop signs like they aren’t even there.
Pedestrians are a significant issue for bike patrol officers. Peds are harder to deal with than cars because they’re unpredictable and can make sudden lateral movements. Bike patrol officers often operate in pedestrian spaces to do their job. Crime doesn’t happen in the middle of a traffic lane (except in Ennis, TX).
A moment of fresh air
Monday was a long classroom day, but we were able to head out and get some bike time in the afternoon. The class rode as a large group (in a double line) from the station to the Citrus Bowl. They worked on the group protocols that had been taught in the classroom, then practiced getting into the toe clips quickly and doing a shoulder check without swerving. Before heading back to the station, the group rode the ramps to the top of the Citrus Bowl. The best way to teach people to shift gears is to put them on a hill! (more day 1 photos)
The bicycle is a beautiful thing
The short classroom session Tuesday morning began with Ofc. Pierce extolling the virtues of the bicycle, not just for police work, but for clean, economical and healthy transportation. He even pointed out the amount of congestion caused by cars in Orlando. Those of us using bicycles are part of the solution.
Ofc. Pierce loves bicycles. He maintains the fleet and fixes all the mechanical issues that crop up during the course.
The LEBA pre-ride equipment check is called the ABC Drop test. Air (proper tire pressure), Brakes (functioning and not rubbing), Chain (lubed and crank, chain rings & cassette functioning properly). Then pick the bike up a few inches and drop it back onto the tires. This is to make sure nothing is loose or ready to fall off. A bike with loose bits will make a racket when it’s dropped.
The gremlins occasionally came around at night to let air out of tires and release brakes. Then they’d wait to see if the students checked their bikes.
The students were also expected to learn the proper nomenclature for all the major parts of the bicycle. That part of the written exam was fill-in-the-blanks.
Ofc. Edgar uses the FBA law enforcement guide to teach this section. Each student receives one and is told to keep it on hand. This was another opportunity to reinforce lane position. Students are encouraged to educate their fellow officers about bike laws, and to communicate that cyclists are right when they’re claiming the lane. He also helped us promote the Toolkit.
After the short classroom session, we headed to the Citrus Bowl for another hill workout. The class broke up into A, B & C group (based on speed capabilities) After climbing to the top and descending once, Ofc. Edgar took the A group on a follow-the-leader excursion through the corridors. We rode into dead ends and had to maneuver around obstacles. I found it challenging because I get uncomfortable in tight spaces, but it was a really good exercise!
We made another trip to the top of the ramps to get the the burn going, then headed across town (via an indirect route) to lunch. The rain sprinkled a little on our ride, but by the time we got to the restaurant, the weather front was moving in. It started pouring while we were eating. I was grateful for my rain gear on the ride back to downtown.
It poured hard all afternoon as the class took refuge inside a cold city parking garage to work on slow-speed handling drills.
The instructors set up four station for the students to rotate through in groups. Three of the stations were component drills to prepare the students for the 4th — the M drill. This is one of a few skill drills the students have to pass in order to graduate from the class.
In station one, the students rode to a series of cones, balance-stopped briefly, then made a 90° turn. Station 2 was a track stand. Station 3 was a serpentine (I didn’t get many photos there because it was too dark in that part of the garage). A diagram of the M drill (station 4) is shown above. Here is a video of Ofc. Richard Carpenter (OPD Bike Unit) demonstrating perfect form.
A handful of students were not able to make it all the way through the M drill on Tuesday. They got a second chance on Thursday and succeeded.
Wednesday’s drills (day 3 photos) were specific to using the bicycle for police work. The students practiced the rolling mount/dismount and riding side-saddle through a cone-weave course. They did a rolling dismount, engaging the kickstand as they swung their foot around, then stopped and stepped gracefully off the bike. They practiced the power slide, which can be used to quickly surround a suspect. Then they broke into 2 groups. One group worked on the quick stop (skidding with the rear brake, then stopping with both brakes). The other group worked on the components of the cyclocross dismount — getting the right leg over, then in front of the left so they can step off at running speed. Here are a few good ones:
Wednesday was a beautiful day, but it sure was windy! I was happy that the drills were close to home and opted to depart the bike bus on Corrine rather than ride all the way downtown with them, then have to ride back home. I understand they got delayed significantly by (someone told me 2?) freight trains. At rush hour, no less. I kinda wish I’d gotten that on video for the Toolkit’s mythology-of-delay demonstration. It would be nearly impossible for a cyclist (or group of cyclists) to delay motorists as long a freight train does, but I’ve never seen anyone honk or throw coke bottles at a freight train.
Curbs, stairs and riding in the dark
There’s a parking lot on the north side of the O-rena that is below street level and has a double set of shallow stairs leading out of it. This is where we headed Thursday afternoon (class started at noon).
Exercise 1 was riding down the curb. Easy enough. Riding up the curb was a whole other thing. The first round resulted in several students going over the handlebars and a couple injuries. One student (the only female in the class) suffered a sprained ankle and had to drop out. The instructors expressed surprise at the difficulty students were having. It may have been a psychological effect (psyche-out) from one of the first riders going over the handlebars.
After everyone got through that, they practiced jumping off the curb at speed — basically a little bunny hop so you land on both wheels at the same time — in single and double formation.
Then it was onto the stairs. First, the cyclocross maneuver — rolling dismount, then run up the stairs with the bike. Then they descended the stairs, first at moderate speed, then as a snail race (be the last one to the bottom). Finally, they put their curb-pop skill and appropriate gearing to the test to climb the stairs. Here’s a little video montage of curbs & stairs:
After the stairs, the rock dodge and instant turn drills were pretty easy. The class breezed through those, then it was time to ride. (More day 4 photos)
Riding in traffic
One of the things that is unique about the LEBA program, and OPD’s program in particular, is the amount of road riding they do. In the course of a week, the group covered more than 100 miles on the road. Some of our hard core commuters may not think that’s much, but remember that many of these guys had little or no cycling experience. It was windy and cold and we had 2 days of rain.
There are several solid reasons OPD’s program includes this much riding.
- It’s much easier to ride from one training location to another on bikes than to load up bikes on a bunch of cars and drive there. When you consider load & unload time, it’s quite a bit faster. Not to mention cleaner and more economical.
- The riding increases the students’ fitness. This week of training can set the stage to get some of them back on track with a regular fitness program (even if they don’t end up in a bike patrol squad). All that riding even pumped me up. I typically don’t ride nearly that many miles in a week, but I feel really, really good after all that exercise last week. It reminded me to just get on my bike and ride more, even if I don’t have someplace to go.
- It gets the officers accustomed to being surrounded by large, fast and noisy vehicles. They need to be comfortable on the road so that traffic is not a distraction. Even though they are in a group, this exposure helps desensitize them to the intimidation factor of traffic.
- It embeds the notion that bicycles are vehicles and their drivers have an equal right to use the roads. It also teaches them about traffic dynamics, lane position and driving a bicycle like any other vehicle.
As usual, we did not go directly to our dinner location, but rode in the opposite direction for the purpose of exposing the group to a major arterial road at rush hour. It was loud, and traffic was thick as we road northbound on John Young. But dense traffic operates below the speed limit. Most of the guys in the A group appeared comfortable, chatting as we rode along in a double paceline. Our presence did not make much impact compared to the sheer volume of (single occupant) cars and the long traffic light cycles.
The night ride after dinner was enjoyable. We hammered back into town on South Street, then detoured into a parking garage on Jackson and climbed the endless spiral ramp. That was a blast! I must go visit that structure again. It’s a lot closer than the hills of Clermont. At the top, Bill discussed the position of tail lights and the need to cover or turn them off when you’re sneaking up on a crime scene. Being seen is good in traffic, not so good in crime fighting.
Before heading back to the station, we rode around Lake Eola. OPD are the only cyclists allowed on that foot path… so that’s the only time I’ll ever be able to ride on it. We stopped at the flag poles and Ofc. Edgar challenged the group to ride around the poles. For our out-of-town readers, the poles are on individual concrete slabs out over the water. One taker, Ofc. Mark from Apopka PD, accepted the challenge and succeeded without falling into the lake.
Cold rain and the gun range
It started raining as I was riding to the station Friday morning. It rained intermittently on the way to the gun range (off Lake Underhill south of Executive Airport). Considering the course schedule, it probably rained on the best possible days. We were able to use a garage for slow-speed drills and the range is inside.
OPD’s range is spectacular. It’s the second biggest indoor range in the country (the biggest is at Quantico). The city leases it to other agencies.
The exercises here focus on how to deal with the bike while shooting. Officers start with their backs to the target while straddling the bike, then turn around, dismount, drop the bike, aim and fire; starting from a horizontal (wipe-out) position, aim, fire and get up shooting at the targets; and shooting in the dark with only bike headlights to illuminate the target.
The last exercise was the obstacle course drill, which was a bit of curb-hopping, cyclocross and then running into the range to shoot targets and rescue an officer down (really, cart-full of plywood). Part of the infinite lighting possibilities in the range includes blue and red strobes. For this test, the range was dark, except for the strobes, it was pretty cool. (More day 5 photos)
It was pouring hard on our ride back downtown. The right 1/3 of the lane on South Street was under water. My hands and feet were soaked and freezing, but my rain gear kept the rest of me dry and warm. Nonetheless, I was having entirely too much fun to be miserable.
Back at the station, everyone passed the written test. We showed some of the photos from the previous days. We also showed the famous honk video. A lot of the guys wanted to write that motorist a ticket! 🙂
What a week!
For me, this experience was a real privilege. It’s something I’ve always been personally curious about. As an educator, I learned a lot of teaching skills that will help with the program we are developing for FBA. The video footage I got on the road will be useful for my advocacy and education work. It will also be useful for LEBA, I will certainly be sharing it in a format they can use. I enjoyed gaining a deeper understanding of the job of a bike patrol officer, and being able to share that with our readers. Hopefully I’ve answered some of your questions. If not, feel free to post them as comments. The officers and instructors are reading this and perhaps they’ll chime in with a response.
Gentlemen, congratulations on this accomplishment!
It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them. Thus you remember them as they actually are, while in a motor car only a high hill impresses you, and you have no such accurate remembrance of country you have driven through as you gain by riding a bicycle. ~Ernest Hemingway
The bicycle can make you intimate with the both the geographical and social contours. That makes it a powerful asset in the community.