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Mountain bike cops ride the beats

(Published August 9, 1999)


Staff Writer

Out on the streets, in their polo shirts and shorts, soaking up the sun as they pedal their way through traffic, they look cool in their sunglasses and helmets, with their handguns strapped to their hips.

The Metropolitan Police Departmentís bike patrol is the modern-day equivalent of the foot patrol. They are the most accessible cops on the street and they are the point people in the community policing model of law enforcement.

Over the past couple of years, the Districtís mountain bike patrol has become a fixture on city streets. They ride year-round, day and night, through neighborhoods good and bad. And while the police department, under the year-old leadership of Chief Charles Ramsey, has been trying to recover from some of its darker days of ineffectiveness and waning respect, the bike patrol has been one of the success stories in that recovery.

The nearly 200 bike cops are assigned throughout all seven police districts, although the First Police District, which covers an area from Capitol Hill to the Anacostia River, has the most with 35. The district is planning on adding seven more officers to the unit soon.

Officer William Suter, a 10-year veteran of the force, said working the streets on a bike puts cops much closer to the public than in the patrol cars he used to ride. He rides one of the beats most traveled by pedestrians: downtown.

"People arenít willing to stop you or ask for help when youíre driving by at 25 miles per hour," Suter said. He said the visibility and accessibility of the bike cops keep them in touch with the goings-on in the community.

Bike cops are a motivated group. They have to be. Laziness is not tolerated on the patrol and anyone caught slacking off is kicked off to make room for someone on the long waiting list who really wants the job.

The training for the bike patrol is intense. The 40-hour course teaches cops how to handle the mountain bikes under city conditions, including how to ride up and down stairs and how to handle their firearms while on the bikes. Sgt. Steven Sacks, who heads the bike patrol for the First District and trained bike officers at the academy, said he flunked one officer out of the program six straight times -- and he was a former police chiefís son.

Suter, whoís been riding the patrol for two years, said the training was a rough experience for him because he hadnít ridden a bike since he was a teenager. During the training course he had to buy special gel-pack riding shorts to try to ease the pain caused by the bicycle seat.

Despite the rigors of the training, the bike patrol is considered a plum assignment in the police department. Officer Patrick Cumba said getting on the bike patrol was his "reward" for making so many arrests during his first year on the force. He was offered his choice of assignments and chose the bike patrol without a second thought, he said.

But serving on the mountain bike patrol is a lot more than riding around meeting people and giving directions to tourists. Cumba, whose patrol area runs from the public housing projects near the Sousa Bridge to the tony townhouses on Capitol Hill, said the bike officers in his patrol service area lead the rest of the officers in arrests.

"When I first started, you could catch them shooting heroin in the alleys here," Cumba said. He said being on the bikes also helps them gather information from people on the streets.

"Weíre definitely way more in the loop than the guys in the cars," he said.

Both Cumba and Suter said riding the bikes gives officers an advantage that the patrol cars donít have: stealth. Bike cops are able to sneak up on lawbreakers without making any noise and catch drug dealers or burglars in the act. They both have stories about being able to ride up to a crime in progress without the perpetrator even knowing someone was watching.

As a testament to the effectiveness of the bike patrol, the police department last year acquired new mountain bikes for its officers. But the departmentís commitment to the bike patrols goes beyond just supplying them with equipment. Executive Assistant Chief Terrance Gainer has been known to put on his polo shirt and climb on his own bike to ride the patrol for a few hours now and then.

One of the few complaints officers have about riding in the District is the summer heat. Regulations require all officers on the street to wear bulletproof vests, and while patrol car officers get to enjoy the air conditioning in their cruisers, the mountain bike patrol officers get no such luxury.

"You just try to stay out of the sun as much as you can," Cumba said. He said businesspeople and merchants on his beat are understanding and generous when the sun blazes down on him and they will offer him glasses of water when he stops in.

Despite that, Cumba said he wouldnít trade his job for anything.

"Itís what I want to do," he said with a grin.

Copyright 1999, The Common Denominator