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Bikes help get handle on law enforcement

© St. Petersburg Times,
published November 28, 2001

The colorful jersey with pockets had to go.

Clearwater Police officers John Pickart and Bob Pease said it was preferable to wear black, or some other less visible color, while pedalling around downtown Clearwater on a Friday night "ride along."

The element of surprise is just one advantage of using a bicycle as a law enforcement tool.

Pickart and Pease are part of Clearwater's bicycle unit -- about 12 officers fit enough to compete in triathlons. In 1996, Sgt. J. TenBieg, along with cyclist and triathlete officer Dan Devol, began developing the downtown bicycle patrol as part of Chief Sid Klein's community policing effort.

"Our police chief is good at getting grants," Pickart said. "But if our mountain bikes cost less than $2,000 and a cruiser costs around $30,000, it's probably saving money.

"That's a plus, and also a fact that the cruiser can be a barrier," Pickart said. "Kids come up to us and talk to us. People in the community see us as more approachable. The bikes are a good thing."

Being able to relate to the homeless, along with being athletic enough for eight hours of rough "cyclocross" riding, are requirements for the job.

Throughout the country, the bicycle is becoming more widely recognized as a tool in the law enforcement community. Pinellas Park, Largo and St. Petersburg use bicycle units.

Pease comes from a family of police officers. His father served 20 years, and Pease has a brother who is an officer near Sarasota. Pickart said he knew when he attended the University of South Florida that criminal justice would be his major.

Riding in Pickart's cruiser, we did a quick spin of the area bordered by Crest Lake Park, the bay front, Drew Street and Court Street. The onboard computer is loaded with icons leading to information such as Florida statutes, an officer's status and location changes during a shift.

Things were quiet during Thanksgiving weekend, and nightfall came quickly. It was time to air up the tires and get out on the mountain bikes.

The police substation is adjacent to a homeless shelter. Families come and go, carrying clothes and Christmas decorations. Most smiled and waved to the two officers as if they were neighbors.

The "sub" is a building where bike unit equipment is kept. A number of fat-tire mountain bikes are leaning in every available space. Helmets, shoes, packs, tools, lights and gloves are everywhere. Officers' desks hold laptop computers, family photos and bicycle racing magazines.

"The high point of my job last week was when I placed a family in a shelter," Pickart said. "The guy had just lost his job, and they had a 10-month-old baby. I don't like to see a little baby living outside, in a park. The low point? Everybody hates you. Even on a bike."

The radio called Pickart to work as security for a boxing event at a local recreation center.

While we were keeping an eye out, a boy who looked to be about 10 opened a door and casually spit in our direction. I asked Pickart about it, and he just shrugged.

"You can't let it get to you," he said. "Most parents have their kids in by this hour or don't let them out of their sight. Some kids have no respect, even during the national anthem."

Heading downtown, Pickart rode down a flight of stairs, faster than a Belgian racer sprinting at cyclocross nationals. "This is what I teach as an IPMBA instructor," Pickart said.

Then he whipped the back of his dual suspension bike around, skidding to a stop.

IPMBA (the International Police Mountain Bike Association) began in 1991 and has conferences with training clinics for its 3,000 members. Training covers bicycle handling skills, community issues, police tactics and maintenance and firearms skills.

The officers spotted a group of homeless people. There were five men and one woman sitting on benches under the holiday lights, surrounded by their possessions. No illegal drinking was going on, and some greeted Pickart by name.

"Some homeless families are tough to deal with because they don't want help," Pickart said. "The manager of the drug store here on the corner wants these folks to move. But they are not criminals.

"Not all homeless are criminals," he said. "Some have just lost jobs in this economy. Some tell us they like the streets and not having to live by rules."

During the evening, Pickart and Pease rode up and down concrete stairs, pulled "wheelies" over high obstacles and sped over grassy downhills -- much to the surprise of transients nervously claiming to be out for a walk at this late hour.

Later, there was a call to a home where a husband had invited his former wife to move into the family's cramped, one-bedroom apartment. That turned out to be one wife too many, and the hostile situation was eased -- at least temporarily by the appearance of the two officers on bikes.

"We know them," Pease said while riding away. "She has hepatitis and is not going to last too long. It's a bad situation for them. We feel for their little boy."

Toward the later part of the shift, the squawking radio calls seemed more frequent. A lady waved us down, pointing to a knife laying in the road. Pickart found the knife.

Then a group of giggling middle school boys laid on their skateboards, positioning themselves at the top of a steep hill, ready to launch down at a busy intersection. Pickart sprinted over to stop them.

"Hey partner, I don't want you to get hurt," Pickart said to one of the boys.

They got out of the street and followed the officer, fascinated by the bike's rear shock absorber.

The boys laughed and teased each other, lining up for the autographed bike unit cards (similar to baseball cards) and other goodies the officers sometimes give out to neighborhood kids.

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