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Training and Liability Issues for Bike Patrol

Written by Rich Bahret

Bicycles are the ultimate vehicles for stealthy patrol. Bike officers are able to smell and hear things folks in cruisers can only dream of. Bikes are able to get down back alleys, trails and other places inaccessible to cruisers. Hard-core criminals can recognize a Ford CVPI headlight pattern from a mile away. They can also usually ID the officers on foot just by the way they walk. Officers on bikes are able to sneak up on crooks day in and day out. Many a bike officer has heard a suspect curse the bike patrol, saying things like, “It’s not fair,” and “This is entrapment!” But it is fair—and incredibly effective.

Bike cops are approachable. People tend to gravitate to them. Even hard-core parolees have been known to talk about bikes and how cool they think bike patrol is. That same guy would never give an officer in a cruiser a second look. Kids absolutely worship the ground bike officers ride on. Spend a few minutes riding along with some neighborhood kids and you have guaranteed informants and friends.

One of the basic tenets of community policing is the formation of partnerships, especially with the community. Ride a police bike in a neighborhood and you’re likely to speak with literally dozens of people in a shift. Most unsolved crimes have a witness who just hasn’t felt the need to come forward. Talk to dozens of people in your assigned neighborhood and suddenly you close cases a lot more quickly.

Training

Many agencies embrace community policing and bike patrols. Some of these same agencies, however, don’t do a very good job embracing training or making policies to ensure their bike officers are able to do the job safely and effectively. Some feel that training isn’t necessary. After all, most people learn to ride bikes as children. It’s so simple even a 5-year-old can master it! Using that same logic, most new officers have been driving cars since they were teenagers. So why do they need driver training?

Most people, even those who ride regularly, have had little or no formal training. They probably do not understand how the gears work, and how to use the brakes effectively. They may not have ever ridden the type of bike commonly used for police work. And even if they have, officers on bikes will ride in places, often in low-light conditions, where regular cyclists would not. They may have to ride in complex, crowded traffic. They will likely ride in a high-crime area where they have to concentrate more on their surroundings than on cycling.

They may be involved in a bike pursuit with a fleeing suspect and have to go up or down obstacles such as curbs and stairs. They may have to draw and fire their sidearm while dismounting—voluntarily or otherwise—from the bike. If they don’t have proper training to deal with these situations, disaster can—and will—occur. The most severe problem would be having an officer injured or killed. This is, and should always be, the number one reason to train. Liability is also a reason to train. “Failure to train” lawsuits are an unfortunate reality in today’s law enforcement arena.

It is amazing that large, well-trained agencies will let officers ride bikes on duty with little and sometimes no training at all. These same agencies would never dream of sending out officers on the street with guns and police package cruisers with no driving or firearms training. However, many agencies have seen the light and now require some type of formal training for their bike patrol officers.

Unfortunately, many of these same agencies don’t see a need for ongoing or in-service bike training. They incorrectly feel that the skills gained in a one-time class will last forever. But at the same time, these agencies typically require annual in-service training for firearms, driving, and other essential policing skills.

Bike patrol should be considered a high liability area, and an in-service program should be put in place. Basic maintenance, slow and fast speed drills, tactical skills, traffic laws and protocol and firearms skills are just some of the areas that may be covered in a training program. Many instructors with the International Police Mountain Bike Association (IPMBA) have designed in-service bike training programs, some of which can be found on the Web site at www.ipmba.org. Many departments take advantage of the wide array of training offered at the annual IPMBA conference and send their officers to the event for their annual in-service requirement.

Policy

A written bike patrol policy is a necessity. The policy should cover all aspects of bike patrol, whether it is a stand-alone unit or a part of other operations, such as a community policing unit, rapid response team, regular patrol or drug task force. The purpose of the policy is usually listed first and can be as simple as a single sentence: “The purpose of this policy (or general order, standard operating procedure) is to provide guidelines for the on-duty operation of police bicycles by members of the agency.”

The next item usually identifies who is authorized to ride a bike on duty. Imagine an untrained officer finding a police bike in a hallway at the station. He jumps on and pops a wheelie down the hallway, straight into another officer, or maybe into a wall. You think your officers would never do this? Think again. The officer in question ends up injured to the point he is unable to return to duty. You attempt to discipline said officer only to discover that your policy doesn’t cover who is actually allowed to ride bikes in a duty capacity.

In addition to covering who can ride the bikes, the policy should also address specifically what type of training, and how much of it, should be completed by bike officers before they actually ride. Many agencies require at least a 32- or 40-hour course, such as the IPMBA Basic Police Cyclist Course. Some agencies require officers who ride the bikes on a regular basis to complete the 40-hour course, and those who only occasionally ride the bikes (for instance, an undercover detective who uses a bike while trying to buy drugs) complete an eight-hour course. One could even argue that those who ride the least need the most training, not the other way around. All bike operators need full training; no matter how much or how little they operate a bike.

The policy should also cover what the bikes will be used for, that is, guidelines for their use, for instance, encouraging interaction with the community, proactive patrolling, directed patrols, traffic enforcement, etc. If there are restrictions on the use of the bike, for example, vehicle pursuits, spell them out. But try to avoid absolutes—many bike officers have had successful bike versus car pursuits due to their knowledge of the streets in their assigned area and their ability to take shortcuts through alleys and vacant lots. “Exigent circumstances” is a phrase that may make it into the policy in an area such as this.

Equipment and uniforms should be covered in the policy. All required equipment should be listed in this section. Helmets, eye protection (both day and night) and pedal retention devices, such as toe clips, are some of the equipment considered by most to be mandatory. If your state requires certain lights at night are your bikes in compliance with the law? How does the bike need to be equipped to be categorized as an emergency vehicle? These and other questions regarding other statutorily required equipment must be considered.

Next on the list might be a basic paragraph about safety. Encouraging officers to ride in pairs, adhering to state traffic statutes unless exigent circumstances warrant, and similar topics are usually covered in this section. Include instructions on what to do in case of a bike crash. Most states recognize bikes as vehicles. If other policies require all department vehicle crashes to be documented, bike crashes should be, too. If the incident doesn’t meet the criteria of a vehicle crash but damage to the bike or other property occurs, a memo may be more in keeping with policy.

The policy should also state who is responsible for the condition and routine maintenance of the bikes. Most times it is the responsibility of the member to whom the bike is assigned. If you have fleet bikes or unassigned (shared) bikes and you do not spell out who will be responsible for them, they are likely to be neglected. If you have an open purchase order with a bike shop or mechanic for maintenance, make sure someone is tasked with getting the bikes to the shop on a regular basis. And require riders to report maintenance issues prior to going off shift so the next shift doesn’t get stuck dealing with them.

An often-overlooked issue is whether to allow personally owned bikes to be used for on-duty patrol. Some officers may very well own better and more expensive bikes than those the department issues. Liability issues may arise if the officer is injured on a bike that is not maintained in the same manner as the issued bikes. If the officer’s personal bike is damaged or stolen, what is your agency’s liability to fix or replace that bike? Some agencies allow the use of personal bikes and have been quite successful; others less so. One way or the other, the important thing is to be aware of the possible issues ahead of time and implement an appropriate policy.

Play the “what if” game a lot, both during the policy development process and afterward, to make sure the policies are kept up-to-date. Ask yourself a series of questions. What if one of my employees sues my agency for failure to train? Are we providing enough training that is pertinent to the job, realistic and state-dependent? What if, while riding on a crowded street, one of my employees is struck by a car? Did we provide the training necessary to enable that person to safely navigate traffic?

If one of my bike officers is involved in a shooting, will he be able to shoot effectively while wearing cycling gloves? Has he ever qualified with his weapon while wearing the gloves? If I have to go to the funeral of one of my bike officers, will I able to look that person’s family in the eye? Will I able to tell them that we did the best we could to train and equip them for the job we asked them to do? If the answer is no, now is the time to make some changes.

Don’t reinvent the wheel. Many agencies will gladly let you borrow and modify their policies and training procedures. IPMBA will gladly send you a free bike patrol startup kit, including a set of model policies authored for and adopted by the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) National Policy Center. The IPMBA Web site lets you search for bike instructors by state, and the newsletter archive contains a number of articles about basic and in-service training. Many an instructor has been known to come to an agency and conduct the 40-hour course. Need to offset some of the cost? Invite neighboring agencies to send students and charge them a reasonable course fee.

Take care of your officers by giving them the guidance, training and equipment needed to do the job. Support them in their times of need and allow them to grow both professionally and personally. Protect them and your agency by having reasonable policies and training in place.

Rich Bahret has been with the Pinellas County (Florida) Sheriff’s Office since 1988. He is currently a full time trainer. He is a State Certified Law Enforcement Instructor, has certifications in all high liability areas and is a certified Police Cyclist Instructor with the International Police Mountain Bike Association (IPMBA). He can be reached at rbahret@tampabay.rr.com.

Published in Law and Order, Apr 2006

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