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Police on Bikes: Happier, Friendlier, Better

August 5, 1996

NORTH BERGEN, N.J. (AP) _ In shorts and T-shirt, police officer Bob Lisa looks less than intimidating as he patrols the downtown business district.

And that’s precisely the point.

As the 28-year-old officer cruises by astride a white, 21-speed mountain bike, shop owners smile his way and teen-agers stop him to chat and discuss potential problems in the neighborhood.

North Bergen’s bicycle patrol, which hit the streets this summer, has brought police closer to people, with some positive results.

``At first, people will look at you and ... you get your laughs and giggles, which is no big deal,″ Lisa said. ``Now they stop and want to talk to you, ask about the bike, about what you guys do.″

Lisa is one of some 10,000 police officers around the United States who ride bicycles on the job, according to the International Police Mountain Bike Association.

North Bergen merchants and residents already say they feel safer.

``In the last two weeks I’ve seen more cops on the street than I’ve seen in the 20 years I’ve been here,″ said Rene Diaz, 44, owner of Jagged Edge Haircutter. ``I think they should get them all out of the cars and onto the street.″

With help from a $1 million federal grant, eight of North Bergen’s 118 officers now pedal through town, wearing light blue T-shirts, black shorts and white helmets.

``An officer in a marked patrol unit, he’s isolated. (People) just see a car. Residents and merchants can’t readily interact with the officer,″ said Chief Angelo Busacco.

Cheap, fast, maneuverable, the bicycle also makes a good law enforcement tool _ ``like a stealth bomber,″ Busacco said. ``They’re quiet, the officers have wider range of patrol than a foot officer and they can get in places a marked vehicle can’t get into.″

Kirby Beck, an officer in Coon Rapids, Minn., said he’s so quiet and fast on his bicycle that criminals don’t react with the usual fight-or-flight response.

``On a bike you see a third reaction you don’t normally see _ deer in the headlights. Sometimes they don’t even drop the dope or the alcohol. You just walk up and take it away from them,″ Beck said.

Another advantage is how the sight of a fit, trim officer who routinely bicycles 25 miles a day can swiftly wipe out the stereotype of overweight cops lounging in doughnut shops, said Natalie Kartalia, assistant director of the mountain-biking officers’ group.

Bicycle patrols do have drawbacks. ``You’re limited in the size of the area you can cover,″ Beck said. ``You’re not able to carry a lot of emergency equipment or evidence-gathering equipment.″ And bike officers, obviously, can’t transport prisoners to jail and must usually summon colleagues in patrol cars.

Police on bicycles were common before the automobile, but modern bike patrols did not begin until 1987, when two Seattle officers stuck in a traffic jam watched enviously as bicycle messengers wove in and out of traffic. Soon they were doing the same.

Now more than 1,200 police departments across the United States have bike patrols, according to IPMBA. Some have one bicycle officer; some, like New York City, have hundreds.

Bicycle patrols have spread to the National Parks Service, the U.S. Capitol Police, the U.S. Border Patrol and military police. Secret Service agents on bicycles protect President Clinton when he goes for his morning jogs.

In Dayton, Ohio, the patrols have helped cure some veteran officers of burnout, said Officer Allan Howard, the department’s bike patrol coordinator.

``Suddenly they’ve found the same level of commitment as they had when they came on 18 years ago,″ Howard said. ``They’re happier. Their attitudes about themselves, about the job and, really, about the world are better.″

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