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Bike Units Add Flexibility To Police's Crime-fighting

By Thomas R. Karlo
Executive Editor

Students are not the only ones who take advantage of the speed and convenience bicycles provide in getting around campus. As the weather warms each April, the Campus Police can be seen patrolling the campus on mountain bicycles. For the officers who volunteer to be part of the bicycle unit, spring means they can once again ride around campus.

For Officer John Peterson, who has been in the unit three years, one of the biggest benefits of patrolling on a bicycle is the increased contact with the community. "People come up and talk to you. That's a good part of job. It's a lot of fun."

The are more pragmatic reasons for using the mountain bicycles as well. On the Institute's narrow, urban campus, bicycle police can often respond to calls faster than officers on foot or in cruisers. "You can get on a bicycle and go from one end of the campus to the other in six or seven minutes, but with a police car during rush hour it's impossible to go that fast," Peterson said.

Speed, low cost, and mobility are advantages of the bicycle units. "We fill in the gap between the officer on foot and the officer in the cruiser," Peterson said.

Bicycle units patrol the same routes that foot patrols normally would cover, said Sgt. Richard Sullivan, who directs the bicycle and motorcycle units. "They just replace the walking person who would have that duty."

Bicycles serve special needs

"A lot of the time the bicycles arrive before anyone else," said Sgt. Paul Baratta. Sometimes bicycle units are the only ones able to respond quickly to problems - crowded events like the yearly July 4 crowds along the Charles River can make using vehicles difficult.

MIT's bicycle police unit was one of the first seen on a college campus when it was founded in 1992. At the time other urban police departments were just beginning to found their own bicycle units, but the practice has become increasing common among urban departments. Currently, the Campus Police are working on organizing joint bicycle patrols with the Cambridge Police.

When the unit was first proposed and organized, Chief Anne P. Glavin had some doubts. "I worried a lot about accidents. There have been a couple of accidents over the years, but nothing wildly serious, and nothing that would make me rethink the unit."

Also, Glavin could see the positive side of the new project. "The benefits were obvious from the start. We got increased mobility, and we got much better contact with people in the community."

Outfitting the officers to patrol on bicycles costs about $1,000 per officer, including costs for uniforms, bicycles, and equipment. The officers wear special uniforms designed for bicycle duty, and their bicycles are equipped with headlights for night patrols. On the back of each bicycle, the officers carry a first-aid bag, since MIT officers are also certified emergency medical technicians. The bicycle unit's ability to carry this equipment is an advantage over traditional foot patrols. In all, units carry 40 to 50 pounds of equipment with them, including gear worn by the officer.

Each year, officers volunteer to be part of the bicycle unit, which currently consists of seven patrolmen and a supervising sergeant. Officers are expected to stay with the unit for several years. "We're looking for dedication over the longer run," Glavin said.

Many of the officers who volunteer ride bicycles recreationally, although not all of them do. Peterson, who can often be seen patrolling the west side of campus during the day, was a regular mountain bicycle rider before he joined the unit. He decided to volunteer both because of the extra exercise and the extra contact with the community.

Officers receive special training

New members of the unit receive several days of intense training before they can go out on patrol. Officers learn to ride their bicycles through shallow water, jump logs, and ride up and down inclines and stairs. "It's pretty wild," Baratta said.

Learning to patrol on a bicycle also means adjusting attitudes toward both the equipment and learning new methods of law enforcement. During training, officers are taught to throw their bicycle over barriers before climbing over, and ride it up and down stairs, without worrying about possible damage to the bicycle, Peterson said. "You're not there to protect the bicycle."

Officers also have to learn how to deal with problem situations when arriving on a bicycle. These officers often arrive before other units, so personal safety is a concern. When confronted by someone with a weapon, bicycle officers cannot use their vehicles as a shield the same way officers responding by car might; using the bicycle to get some distance is often a better idea, Peterson said.

Despite being a regular bicycle rider, Peterson didn't find the training easy. "I got an award for being the most motivated - I guess they never saw a 50-year-old guy fall off a bicycle that many times."

MIT has also used the bicycle unit to focus on bicycle-related crime problems. Last summer, to combat an increase in bicycle thefts, plainclothes officers on bicycles were used to bolster enforcement efforts.

With the bicycle unit entering their fifth year on campus, Glavin is happy she decided to approve their formation. "They've been very well received by the community," Glavin said.