FLPD program back in action after eight years
Bike riding is typically regarded as an activity of enjoyment, but recreation is far from the mind for a new group of cyclists in town. About a dozen bikers have zipped across Forest Lake this summer and fall on 24-speed rides tricked out with disc brakes and customized cargo holders.
It could mean only one thing: the Bike Patrol is back.
Indeed, the Forest Lake Police Department’s two-wheel squadron has returned following an eight-year hiatus. As the Bike Patrol wraps up its first season since 2003, indications are it is here to stay.
“Ever since we did bring it back, I’ve heard nothing but good things, from the mayor, City Council members, firefighters…” says Chief Rick Peterson. “It’s been just a fantastic program to bring back.”
The sight of bike-mounted officers is not entirely new in Forest Lake. The police department implemented a bike patrol program in 1999 under Chief David Schwartz following the obtaining of a grant aimed at combating truancy and other juvenile-related problems. The program was popular at the station but was ultimately scrapped the 2003 patrol season by new Chief Clark Quiring, who had orders to cut costs.
Quiring retired last summer, and the ensuing leadership switch opened the door for change. Peterson was promoted to chief, and as a former bike patrol officer himself, he supported its return as part of a return to the old model of “community policing.”
“When I was a kid, officers would be driving down the road and they’d see us playing basketball in the driveway with the neighborhood kids and they’d ask us how it was going,” he recalls.
The Forest Lake native notes the department once had several programs aimed specifically at connecting with the community, but budget cuts and other factors took a toll in recent years.
“Suddenly we got in a phase where community policing was more or less a sidebar,” Peterson says. “Once we started dropping some of those programs it really felt like the connection between police and citizens just wasn’t there anymore.”
The Police Commission and City Council liked what they heard from Peterson concerning community policing, so this year the department dusted off six Fuji bikes, broke in two new ones and geared up for a return to the paths.
About a dozen officers volunteered for the duty, including bike patrol veterans Pat Ferguson and Sean Lafferty. The others were put through two days of training by a bike officer from Metro Transit. The sessions included techniques for sudden braking and dismounting and even covered the best way to fall if need be.
A steady stream of donations allowed for the revival of the Bike Patrol without a cent from taxpayers. Dick Reinhardt of Trail Cycle volunteered to tune up the old bikes. A $2,500 donation from Forest Lake Motorsports was part of $4,500 in total gifts. The funds covered the cost of training, helmets, shirts, shorts and two brand new bikes.
The bike patrol officially returned to duty in the first week of July.
Spokes of Success
The department touts many benefits regarding the Bike Patrol. Chiefly, it allows officers to keep a low profile when necessary, it saves money and it helps officers connect to the community.
Assignments for the unit often are targeted, meaning officers respond to specific calls. There are several situations in which a quiet entry is beneficial.
“I think the beauty of it for us is, if you want to send us to a call where it is more of an in-progress deal, such as kids expecting to see a squad car roll in, they never see [us] because they’re looking for black and white,” says Ferguson. “For our advantage, if we’re looking for stealth and things like that, it works.”
The same theory also helps in serving warrants; suspects may have their eye out, but not for a bike.
The bikes are versatile, to a point. For instance, they can be equipped with flashing lights and used to direct traffic, but their efficiency would be wasted on calls requiring transportation of victims or suspects.
Thus, the department typically schedules only one Bike Patrol officer at a time, and he mainly sticks to the center of town.
Even so, the new unit helps the department save money. It takes one car off the street, eliminating gas costs while limiting wear and tear on the vehicles. Plus, the bike-based officer is often utilized in such a way as to save his car-based co-workers from driving across town unnecessarily.
“One of the things that’s often focused on is the savings of not having my patrol car out driving around,” says Lafferty. “But it could be the fact that if I am downtown, now Sgt. [Jake] Ayers doesn’t have to drive from 180th and July (Avenue) back to the office for a call at the window. So with the fuel savings and things like that, it kind of works itself out. It’s a good balance.”
The program is perfectly suited for special events from a standpoint of convenience and access. Most of the Bike Patrol officers were in training over the Fourth of July, but Sgt. Ayers, another former bike patrol member who directly oversees the program now, expects a full fleet to operate during next year’s celebration.
Perhaps most importantly, the Bike Patrol has proven a good means for the department to interact with the public.
The response to an officer on a bike is very different from that so often seen when a squad car is involved.
“The bottom line is, if you’re on a bicycle and you pull into Lakeside Park and there’s 15 kids out there, you now can sit and talk with them and have an open dialogue with them and they’ll talk with you,” Ferguson says. “If you pull up with a squad car they see you as a policeman in their environment, versus ‘out here with us.’ That’s been the neat part about being on a bicycle.”
The public can expect to see the Bike Patrol in action until early November, or as weather dictates. Officers will resume pedaling come April or so.
“With Chief Peterson’s goals, I think this will be around,” Ayers says. “…I think we’ll have it for years to come.”