SANTA FE (AP) — Santa Fe police Officer Jeff Worth treats his bike like a patrol car, and there’s no reason he shouldn’t. His Kona 27-speed mountain bike is equipped with a siren, flashing lights and an emergency kit. And his authority is the same. The charge for fleeing an officer is the same whether he’s on a bike or in a car.
While he certainly is not getting in high-speed chases or rushing across town, Worth said that, as a bike officer, people are more willing to approach him, and that helps cut down on crime.
“If you take care of the little things, then the big things won’t happen,” he said.
Worth is one of two full-time bicycle officers in the Santa Fe Police Department. He and fellow bike Officer Mike Lowe, with the aid of Pat Hernandez from the Albuquerque Police Department, have been training 11 new bicycle officers, two of whom will serve as full-time bike officers. Worth estimated the department has about 20 bike-trained officers already.
That request for more officers comes from Chief Ray Rael, who said he’s a big supporter of the program because “it’s an extremely useful way to increase our presence in troubled neighborhoods.”
Rael added that the unit can also patrol trails and crowded urban areas more effectively than other officers.
Lowe said he has received thanks from pedestrians while on his bike. He also added he can see things from his bike he might otherwise miss. “I believe in this unit quite a bit,” he said.
Of course, Lowe said that people do occasionally complain when on-duty cops ride through areas where bikes aren’t allowed, such as the Plaza.
Active patrol also includes stealth, Worth said. He described many incidents where he was in full uniform but was able to ride right up to someone committing a crime. One time, he said, he even busted two guys with a mobile meth lab in one of their backpacks.
Worth said that for some reason people just don’t expect police officers to be on bicycles, which gives police an edge in some situations.
Worth also touted the green benefits of the bike patrol. True, bicycle officers do drive to their patrol area, but, barring emergencies, they probably won’t drive that vehicle until the end of the day, which saves gas.
On a recent Wednesday, the recruits headed out to Fort Marcy Park to practice slow-riding techniques. Training involves seemingly inconsequential activities, such as riding sidesaddle, and exercises that are supposed to increase control, Worth said. At the practice, such activities quickly escalated into sharp turns accompanied by screeching wheels and officers launching themselves from their bicycles.
Worth said anyone can ride fast, but it takes skill to ride through crowds, and it’s that ability that officers will use most at events such as Fiesta de Santa Fe and Indian Market.
Sgt. Thomas Grundler, one of the program’s administrators, said the schedule for bike officers varies from day to day. On busy days, officers probably will stick to their patrol cars, but on slower days, they may be able to go biking. He added that officers are encouraged to take their bikes out during personal time to maintain their skills.
As for Lowe, he’s been with the program for about a year. He said he originally got involved with it because he likes the community connection the program provides and he likes riding bicycles. Lowe already had his own bikes before he started, but he said he’s become even more active since then. In fact, he said he’s lost about 46 pounds since he started the program.
Riding can take a physical toll, Lowe admitted. He always wears his protective vest, which he described as cumbersome, but he said he would much prefer to have it instead of worrying about his safety. Worth added that officers are taught to pace themselves.
Consider, he said, if an officer bikes full speed to a crime, but then is too tired to do his job when he gets there. “He’s not much help then, is he?”
Worth said the city’s bicycle officers average about 25 miles a day on their bikes, in increments of a half-mile here, or five miles there. He also said not just anyone can be a bike officer. To qualify for the program, applicants must ride through an obstacle course under a set time and pass a written test on bicycle knowledge and road safety.
Ryan Alire-Maez and Nick Chavez passed those tests, though both said they hadn’t ridden bikes in a while. Chavez said he was drawn to the unit because it allows an officer to spend more time in the community. Alire-Maez echoed that sentiment and added that it definitely would be nice to stay active.
Seeing as the two are new, their bike skills aren’t as honed as Lowe’s or Worth’s. Although he hasn’t fallen yet, Chavez said, “It’s going to happen, so I try not to worry about it.”
At Fort Marcy Park, the group started practicing small front wheel pops, a technique that will allow them to quickly get up and over curbs. In many ways, they were a lot like kids riding around their neighborhood streets. There were the ones who easily mastered the technique and the ones who pedaled slowly toward the curb as though it were a 10-foot wall.
Worth said the officers use Kona mountain bikes from Santa Fe Mountain Sports. He estimated that each bike runs about $1,000, but that price tag comes with free maintenance and labor from the bike shop. The department pays for replacement parts, Grundler said.
The bikes aren’t hand-me-downs but are fitted to each officer, based on his height. And they come equipped with toe clips, which allow for the more technical riding the officers might need to do, such as getting the extra lift required to pop onto a curb or providing the extra pull to go faster.
So far, the bicycle officer program has garnered many supporters, including high-profile proponents such as Mayor David Coss, who said the program helps establish community presence and cuts down on gas usage.
Some bicyclists also like the program because of the legitimacy it provides to the biking community, according to Santa Fe Mountain Sports employee Anna McMillian. She added that officers who are familiar with biking can better enforce biking laws and protect bicyclists.
For Worth, however, it all comes back to being closer to the community. He described working with the narcotics division and how it hardened him, but he then added that the bike unit has taken off his edge.
“I actually get to meet good people,” he said.
Information from: The Santa Fe New Mexican, http://www.sfnewmexican.com
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.