By Katie McDevitt, The Tribune, Mesa, Ariz.
Nov. 5–Bicycle officer Heather Penner stopped suddenly while patrolling a Tempe parking lot.
“Smell that?” she asked.
A faint odor lingered in the night air but quickly floated off with a breeze.
Penner pointed her head and sniffed frantically toward the sky. Her eyes darted about the rows of parked cars. In seconds, her gaze stopped on a sedan parked in the corner with its windows partially open.
She parked her bike and walked up to the car, where two young women had just lit up a marijuana pipe.
“I never do this,” one woman said to Penner. “I can’t believe I got caught.”
State Capitol police Sgt. Bob Gerome, who was working as Penner’s partner, chuckled as a paddy wagon drove off with the women loaded in the back.
“You were like a bloodhound,” he said in amazement.
Penner laughed, and the two officers rode off to find the next crime.
It’s not hard to understand why patrolling the streets on a bicycles has its advantages. The officers can see, smell and hear what police in cruisers cannot. They can sneak up quietly on criminals and aggressively corner them with their bicycles. And if an offender runs, they can hunt him down more quickly than officers on foot.
They’re fit and they’re tough. But at the same time, they’re friendly faces on Mill Avenue who will provide directions to people who are lost and recommend parking spaces.
Recently, the Tempe bike team taught a two-day, 20-hour bicycle certification class in which eight officers navigated through cones, popped up stairs and tackled sandy off-road trails so they could learn what it takes to become a bicycle cop. The Tribune came along.
WELCOME TO BIKE SCHOOL
Officer Anthony Miller is a strong, stocky man built like a football player. He has already attended bike school once but couldn’t pass. So he decided to try again.
“You can’t expect to show up and just do it,” Miller said. “You have to be in bike shape and doing the cones. You have to practice it.”
A Show Low officer, two state Capitol police officers and five Tempe officers arrived quietly to the bike trailer about 5 p.m. on the first day of class. The bike trailer is north of the Mill Avenue bridge, a small area where the bike unit meets before heading out to the streets.
Among the group were two of Mill Avenue’s mounted officers.
“When it rains, they can’t go on the horse,” said bike team Sgt. Mike Powell. “So we want to have everyone crosstrained.”
After basic bicycle education, the class rode near Tempe Town Lake to practice skills essential for the 10-hour shift that bike cops work. They learned to dismount the moving bike, ride with their arms around each other and stay on the bike despite being pushed.
Finally, the group embarked on a 15-mile flat ride where they stopped only for pushups and sit-ups.
Many officers agree the bicycle unit is one of the hardest working groups in the department. In fact, the 10 officers on the bike team combined arrest at least 100 people each week.
After a long day of riding ended, the fatigued group still had one final task: practicing tactics.
“When you talk with someone, use your bike like a car,” said officer Mike Hayes, a three-year bike veteran. The bicycle should be positioned between the officer and the suspect, Hayes told the class at the end of the night. “It’s easier to chase someone down on a bike than to get into a foot pursuit,” he said.
The officers left their first day of training aching and weary. But that didn’t stop them from returning the next day for another round of pedaling.
PASSING THE CLASS
“If you fall in front of a crowd once, I guarantee you won’t do it again,” said Sgt. Mike Powell to the class.
It hurts, and people laugh, but “you get up and ride away,” said officer Kevin Kelch. “Then you can go around the corner and feel your pain.”
Many of the officers in the bike class had minor falls during training. Past classes had hospital trips and fainting episodes.
As the second day of class began, mumbles of sore backs and aching rear ends echoed throughout the group. After some stretches, the class embarked on an off-road trip through Papago Park. The riders flicked their gears and pedaled hard over gravel and hills covered in sand.
When the ride was over, the officers went back to the bike trailer for a quick drink of water before heading out to one of the most challenging parts of the class — the stairs.
To pass the class, each person had to learn to ride up two steps. The group began by practicing on a curb.
For some, popping up the stairs came easy. But other officers smacked the steps and came to a halt or fell to the side.
“Speed it up,” Hayes said to one officer who approached the stairs slowly and couldn’t make it. Hayes stood by to catch anyone who fell.
The officers were straightfaced and serious during the stairs part of the training. But by the end of the lesson, their demeanor changed. The group lined up single-file and rode up and down stairs comfortably.
The veteran cyclists flew down flights of stairs and performed tricks nearby, while curious onlookers watched the show.
“I wasn’t the greatest bike rider,” officer Tom Blank said. “But when they show you step by step how to do it, it’s pretty easy.”
Blank, who normally works in a patrol car, is a tall and quiet man who attended the class to get certified to work overtime hours on a bicycle. But he still had to pass the test.
THE OBSTACLE COURSE
Gusts of cold air blew from under a freeway overpass as the class prepared to take its final test near Tempe Town Lake.
Two minutes, 30 seconds was the time limit to weave through tightly placed cones, perform tactical maneuvers, hop a curb, dismount the bike and pull together everything learned.
“Usually, all of them pass,” Kelch said. “We’ll work with them for the whole two days if they can’t pass it.”
The words were comforting to the group, but it didn’t stop the nervousness. If the officers pass the obstacle course, they are certified to work on a bicycle. But to join the bike team, they must go through a selection process.
“I just want to get past the keyhole part because that’s the biggest part I’ve had trouble with,” Blank said while watching another officer wind through the course.
The keyhole is named after a particular arrangement of cones.
As the officers stood around waiting for their turn, a loud “Whoo hoo” rang out through the crowd.
Officer Anthony Miller, who failed the test last time around, finished the course in just more than two minutes. He smiled as he rode his bike up the hill toward the rest of the group.
At the end of the class, all eight officers passed. They filed into the bike trailer about 10 p.m., where they were rewarded with hot hamburgers on the grill.
The officers then changed into their uniforms and headed to Mill Avenue to put to work what they’d learned.
“It was intense,” officer Kyle Swesey said. “And there were a lot of guys pushing us.”
Copyright (c) 2006, The Tribune, Mesa, Ariz.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Business News.
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