Cops on bikes? It sounds like a Monty Python skit, to be sure. But what could be more utilitarian than bike cops? If the purpose of police is to protect and serve, and if the bicycle is the vehicle that allows police more contact with the community and more opportunity to fight crime, then why aren’t there more cops on bikes? Luckily, more and more police departments in the 21st Century are coming around to a 19th Century idea: cops on bikes do more to protect the common good.
Bicycles and professional police came of age together in the 1800s. As the Industrial Revolution took hold in Europe and America during the first half of Queen Victorias reign, large numbers of people congregated in urban centers. But the traditional, rural practice of policing was an ad hoc, amateur affair, often motivated by rewards and bounties, and it was ill-equipped to deal with large masses of people unknown to each other. Sheriffs, whether appointed or elected, served at the pleasure of their political patrons, and only part-time at that. Increasingly common riots and civil disturbances were often suppressed by the army and militia, with predictably bloody results. In response, Sir Robert Peels Metropolitan Police force (the Bobbies) was founded in 1829 by act of Parliament in Great Britain, and became the modern model for the civilized world: a professional, civilian law enforcement agency that (in theory, at least) served the entire populace.
As professional policing spread westward across the Atlantic to the old Colonies, so too did the bicycle. While the first laufsmachine or velocipedes were built in Germany and France around 1820, it was not until the 1860s that pedals were added to create the bone-shaker, a bicycle that enjoyed a brief heyday in the 1860s, and earned its eponym from its rigid wheels and frame. An Illinois sheriff is reported to have outfitted his deputies with bone-shakers in 1869. Boston Park police were patrolling on high-wheeled penny-farthings in the 1880s, and probably chasing down the Scorchers, in what must have been a quaint, Victorian high-speed pursuit.
Scorchers were the bane of the new urban landscape. In their pursuit of speeds of a dozen or more miles per hour, they terrorized the promenading bourgeoisie in Central Park, Boston Common and Kensington Gardens. The spinning, over-sized, shoulder-high, fixed-gear pedals of penny farthings were particularly dangerous, promising to crush the collarbones and dash the skulls of innocent perambulators.
The introduction of the “safety bicycle” in the 1890s only brought more chaos to American streets, and police departments across the nation established dedicated bicycle squads. Then-Commissioner of the New York Police Department Theodore Roosevelt, himself an avid cyclist, had one hundred “wheelmen” stationed in their own precinct, assigned to keep speeding cyclists in check. For a brief period cops on bikes were the darling of the media.
Cops were outfitted with bikes fast enough to catch even the fastest scorchers. In the days of fixed-gear bicycles, that meant that they were riding with front chainrings of epic proportions.
And in a scene yet to be replicated a century later, President Teddy Roosevelt’s electric limo was escorted by police officers mounted on chainless bicycles! Later on, President Roosevelt’s car was pulled over by two bike cops for doing 25mph in a 15mph zone. While bicycle squads represented less than 10% of the police force, they were regularly credited with more than 25% of the arrests.
But like the bicycle, the bike cop was soon overtaken by first the motorcycle and then the automobile. By the 1930s bicycles had been almost entirely discarded in favor of faster internal combustion vehicles. While radio-dispatched patrol cars certainly allowed for centralized efficiency, they did not necessarily create safer communities. Officers in squad cars were isolated from the communities they patrolled.
Beginning in the 1960s, police began to return to bicycles in cities as diverse as Baltimore, Dallas and Chicago. As their forefathers had discovered two generations before, “with their ability to move slower, officers [on bikes] can observe more. They can utilize more of their senses to detect crime, and when necessary they can respond quickly. Due to their stealth advantage, bike patrols oftentimes ride right up on criminal activity while it’s occurring.” -Lt. David Hildebrand, Denton (Texas) Police Department.
The re-introduction of bicycles to policing in the 1960s and 1970s was mostly an ad hoc affair. They focused on muggers in Central Park, car-radio thieves in Baltimore and drug traffickers in the Canal Zone. It was not until 1987 that a formal, full-time bike squad was established in Seattle, in part as a response to the gridlock caused by construction that immobilized police officers in their squad cars. By getting out of their cars and onto bikes, Seattle police were able to move faster and respond quicker.
In numerous studies, bike cops have been found to be twice as effective as car cops: they have more contact with the public and make more arrests. They are able to navigate areas inaccessible to cars, and do so silently. There are now more bike cops per capita in America now than there were a hundred years ago.
But for any child of the Nineties, the zenith of bike cops was surely “Pacific Blue.”
It featured all of the bikini-ogling thrills of “Baywatch,” but with kick-ass Trek Y-bikes and Spinergy wheelsets. Guest appearances included stunts by Hans Rey and April Lawyer. Suddenly everybody wanted a mountain bike, and everyone wanted to be a bike cop. So kick back and raise a glass to that great guilty pleasure, “Pacific Blue:”