Shifting gears on bike patrol

People don't take bike patrols seriously--that's not necessarily a bad thing

May 11, 2014|By Rachel Cromidas, @rachelcromidas | RedEye

Chuck Trendle was pretending to be a man drinking a beer along the lakefront trail—harmless, but still breaking the law.

When two police officers approached him on their bicycles to write him a ticket, he ran. The police chased him, cornered him between their two front wheels, pushed him over the frame of one of the bikes and cuffed him within seconds.

Trendle is an instructor for the Chicago Police Department’s bike unit, a team of beat cops who patrol the city atop mountain bikes. Last week he ran a 15-officer unit through drill after drill. They wove around traffic cones inside a public school gymnasium-turned-training ground, navigated the stairs at the Buckingham Fountain and chased imaginary offenders, like Trendle, down a narrow gangway.

“Faster,” Juan Salazar, the head instructor, shouted as an officer pedalled down a line of cones as though he were chasing a fleeing man. “Do it again. That guy’s already home making dinner. Faster, like you’re chasing after a guy who just shot your partner.”

The officers whom Salazar and Trendle put through their paces this week will make up part of this summer’s lakefront detail. They’re the officers who likely will respond if joggers are mugged along the path or a fireworks watcher is spotted slinging a beer. The team usually patrols along the lakefront and around Area Central, the policing boundary that encompasses downtown, River North and parts of the South and West Loop.

But this year the department is sending about 140 extra bike patrollers to 20 designated high-crime areas, including Englewood and Back of the Yards.

Even to other officers, bike patrols may seem less effective than other types of details. But police officials say bicycles are ideal for patrolling high-traffic areas, like the Loop, and can give officers in problem neighborhoods more flexibility. They are particularly useful when it comes to patrolling places blocked off to cars and performing crowd control during the city’s bustling summer festivals, police officials said.

“You’re able to get to some areas a lot quicker than a normal squad car, especially if it’s rush hour,” Salazar said. “Most officers who have not been on a bike don’t know how much you can use it to your advantage, how many tactics are available for you on a bike.”

Chris Menton, a professor of criminal justice at Roger Williams University, has seen bicycle use by police grow significantly over the past 25 years, particularly as urban areas become more dense and prone to gridlock, he said.

Beyond tactical advantages, bike details also may appear more approachable to the public than those in squad cars, according to Menton. But many still face misconceptions from other police officers and citizens who don’t consider them serious policing tools.

“One of the problems with police on bicycles is that people consider bicycles to be toys, and a police chief is loath to put his highly trained, well-paid officer on a toy,” Menton said. “That image does not sit well, even though I would argue from my research that in some cases [a bike] is much more effective.”

Menton said there may be an upside to that public image: Where a person might avoid a squad car or foot patrol officer, he’s found that many people are more quick to approach a resting bicycle patroller to chat or ask a question, including people connected to criminal activity.

“It’s hard to feel threatened or hostile to a person in shorts,” he said.

Before this year’s team of new and returning riders takes to the streets, the officers must complete a five-day course in bike policing. CPD’s bike patrollers need to be able to dismount their bikes on the go, deliver a forearm strike while riding, and take down fleeing criminals, perhaps tackling them or using a “hook slide” maneuver, which involves braking while ramming the bike’s front wheel into a subject’s leg.

Training days can be long. Day 2 started at 8 a.m. with a demonstration on bike maintenance and a series of tricky obstacle courses. It ended eight hours later with a “10-1” drill, named for the code used when an officer needs help with a subject.

In the scenario, Trendle played the offender again, this time attacking a punching bag that filled in for a beaten-up police officer. The cops were instructed to race their bikes individually around barriers and uphill ramps, and then to run into the room where Trendle was waiting, wrestle him off of the punching bag and move his hands safely behind his back, all without using a weapon.

The point of the exercise, Trendle later said, was to show the officers how much effort they expend responding to an incident by bike, as opposed to a squad car.

“A few of you guys, you had no gas by the time you got to me,” he said, shaking his head. “You have to have something in the tank. If you’re out of breath, you have nothing.”

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