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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Bobbies on Bikes

Air Date: Week of

Evelyn Tully-Costa reports from New York on the return of the bicycle to the city's police force.


CURWOOD: Fifty years ago in America it was common to see police on bikes. But then, as our car culture took over, two-wheelers all but vanished from the beat. Today though, the bike brigades are making a comeback. In Los Angeles, in Seattle, in Lewiston, Maine, in Delaware beach towns and in other communities, the constables on patrol are likely to arrive on swift and silent bikes. Now in New York, where messenger services have long understood that bikes can beat cars through heavy traffic, some of the city's housing police have turned in their cruisers for ten-speeds. Evelyn Tully Costa reports.

(Street sounds)

TULLY-COSTA: It's early evening in the Brooklyn Forte-Greene housing projects, buildings where crack dealing and shootings are as commonplace as visits from the mailman. But another sight that's becoming familiar here are police . . . on bicycles.

PAPPAS: Right now we're just riding in and out of the project, patrol, we ride at a slow rate of speed, this way we can see what's going on, who's doing what. You know, everybody sees us, they know we're here.

TULLY-COSTA: Sergeant June Pappas rides with the New York City Housing Police bike patrol. Since its start in June, 36 officers have switched from radio and patrol duty, or R&P, and have wheeled into the communities. As kids fill up playgrounds before being called in for dinner, Sgt. Pappas describes her duties.

PAPPAS: First of all you're riding through, in and out of the projects, all right? All types of weather, you know, this is a year-round program. And when you're in a car, you either have the radio on, the heat up and the windows closed, so you couldn't hear anybody screaming for help at all. And when you're riding on the bike you're running right into the people, they're telling you how they feel. And it makes you feel good because you're out there working. You just don't get to see the negative side, like on a car, all they do, they can't fit through the projects, so when they do come in all they see is whatever job they're on. People are usually in a bad mood, but here you get to see 'em good and bad.

TULLY-COSTA: Bicycles allow officers to combine the personability of beat cops with the mobility of cars. Back at the precinct house, Captain Anthony Jones says he wants more of his officers on wheels instead of behind them.

JONES: We would love to get 'em out of the cars, that's how we got away from the public.

TULLY-COSTA: After checking out bike patrol programs in Seattle and Las Vegas, New York's Housing Police decided to go for it in high rise developments. At first considered a joke by other officers, programs nationwide now have long waiting lists. Work productivity and morale among the biking units is among the highest in their departments. Captain Jones says biking officers are no more vulnerable than cops in cars.

JONES: I would say the risk is no greater. I don't believe I've had a bicycle accident, where I've had 18 R&P accidents since July.

TULLY-COSTA: With patrol cars starting at $17,000, against a $600 bicycle, the immediate savings are obvious. There are other benefits for the city as well. John Orcutt is with the group Transportation Alternatives. They've been pushing the city to put cops on bikes for years.

ORCUTT: A large part of it is simply a technological choice, in terms of how is it appropriate to get around a very dense metropolis, which is approaching gridlock in its car traffic situation. In some ways the police force has simply followed some of the other industries, which have figured out that a bike is a much quicker, cheaper way to get something or a person from one place to the other in a place like Manhattan or Brooklyn or Queens, where the housing police here are also using bikes.

TULLY-COSTA: So familiar images of patrol cars idling on side streets, two cops sitting waiting for a radio dispatch, might become a rare sight in housing projects. Reviews from the community have also been enthusiastic.

GRAHAM: I'm glad to see policemen running around, riding around on their bikes, and keep the good work up. Because the bikes can go places the cars can't go.
CARTY: I think they fly and all that. I think they cool, because I think they should be on bikes 'cause they get here faster than them people in cars, they don't get here faster.
WOMAN: I really didn't understand, or know what it was all about when I first saw 'em, because I couldn't visualize how they would ride a bike, pull a gun, grab somebody with the bike -- are they still on it? Are they off it? But then when I read the article in the news, I really got an understanding, and it's great. And I said, I can't wait to see one of them to tell them -- good work, good work.

TULLY-COSTA: And if residents applaud cops on bikes, housing police say drug dealers find it harder to operate since the bike patrols began. The bike patrol seems to be spawning another benefit: environmentalism. Standing with his bike in the shadow of four high rises and the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, Officer Juan Luna sees a two-wheeled world as a healthier one.

LUNA: I got children, and I hope that they grow up to see trees and, you know, clean air and be able to fish in a pond and stuff like that. Because it's so important now, with all this lead that's polluting the rivers, and the air, and the ozone, and this nuclear testing that's polluting everything. I feel this is a step where you can get some pollution out of the system. I feel that people should ride a little more than leave their cars home every now and then, you know? I think the air will be a lot clean and we'll be a lot healthier from it.

TULLY-COSTA: With the Housing Police biking program expanding from 36 to 80 officers by 1993, Officer Luna might get his wish. And now the city's Parks Department, as well as police forces nationwide, are seeking training advice from this program. For Living on Earth, I'm Evelyn Tully-Costa in New York.

(Siren out under music)



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