March 15, 2010

Bicycles give police speed, personal touch


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Photo by John Ewing/Staff Photographer.. Tuesday, August 12, 2008...Portland Police officers Dan Knight (left) and Karl Geib conduct their patrols of Portland streets on bicycles year-round and in all sorts of weather conditions.

click image to enlarge

Photo by John Ewing/Staff Photographer.. Tuesday, August 12, 2008...Portland Police officers Dan Knight (left) and Karl Geib conduct their patrols of Portland streets on bicycles year-round and in all sorts of weather conditions.

Staff Writer

It was raining hard one morning last week, as it has for much of this summer, but Portland police officers Karl Geib and Dan Knight were undeterred, cycling briskly through Bayside as part of their appointed rounds of Portland's peninsula.

The rain was barely a distraction to the officers, who rode their bikes on the beat all winter long, missing just five days through the depths of last winter's near-record snowfall. Between the two of them, Geib and Knight logged 5,500 miles last year -- and made 240 arrests, one of the best records in the department.

''I dread the days I have to be in a car. I feel kind of stifled,'' Knight said.

Being on a bike puts the officers closer to the people on their beat, and gives them the speed they need to cover a lot of ground quickly.

Weather? Rarely a problem.

''You dress like you do for skiing,'' Geib said of the frigid February mornings. ''We're always sweating,'' he said, noting that keeping hands and feet warm can be as tricky as it is for anyone who plays in the snow.

Rain? Geib cycles to and from work every day, three miles round-trip rain or shine, and is happy to be out riding during his shift.

''You get so it's not a big deal. My feet are wet. That's about it,'' Geib said.

They don't ride in driving snow, because they aren't as effective and drivers can't stop.

In a steady downpour, they're likely to use a cruiser until the rain lets up or duck into a business. But intermittent rain is no problem.

The department believes that the bicycle patrols pay dividends for the community.

''It allows a lot of face-to-face contact with citizens, which is positive for the police department and the community, and it's also a very effective enforcement tool because they're able to sneak up on people,'' said Lt. Bill Preis, head of the daytime directed patrol, the team that includes the bicycle officers. ''People look for police cars; they don't look for bicycles so much. (The officers) really use the stealth aspect of it to their advantage.''

While an approaching cruiser would likely scatter lawbreakers, officers on cycles can get close quickly.

''We can hide the bikes in an alley, behind a car. They just don't see us,'' Knight said. The officers also are able to get around in congested downtown traffic quickly, making the bikes ideal for pursuing someone on foot. If a motorist refuses to stop, a backup officer in a cruiser is just a radio call away.

Understandably, Knight, 45, and Geib, 49, are in remarkable shape. There are others among the department's 167 officers who volunteer to patrol on bicycles, including officers on the city's islands and on evening patrol, but Knight and Geib are the most devoted. They have been riding since the 1990s.

''We get to do something we do on our own off-time,'' Knight said, noting that on their days off, sometimes he, Geib and other officers will cycle a route that takes them from Conway, N.H., through Pinkham and Evans notches, a circuit of about 90 miles.

In Portland, their beat is between High Street and the Eastern Prom. Their workout includes hauling about 30 pounds in their protective vest and their gun belt, as well as paperwork and ticket books in the saddlebags.

The officers do have some specialized equipment.

The bicycles, one of which was donated by CycleMania in Portland, are Trek Police Edition models. They have silent rear hubs so when they are coasting, the usual clicking sounds does not give them away.

The bikes are aluminum and geared more for speed than the typical mountain bike. And they have elevated handlebars so it is easier for the officers to take in their surroundings while they ride.

In the snow and ice, the bikes are outfitted with studded tires donated by the local Eastern Mountain Sports shop.

''You don't slip, you don't slide,'' Geib said. ''Once the plows go by, we're golden.''

And for those days when the chill seeps into the skin, the officers have stainless steel insulated mugs that fit nicely in the bike's cage and keep the coffee hot for a couple of hours.

Patrolling on a bicycle does have its hazards. Sometimes it's a collision in the roadway, or someone inadvertently opening a car door into the officers' path.

Minutes before a recent interview, the pair put their bike knowledge to use in solving a crime. They stopped to question a man who they said is a known drug user, and the talk turned to the very unusual bicycle he was riding.

Two phone calls later, they had tracked down Percy Wheeler, who used to own a bicycle shop and now makes custom wheels that he sells on the Internet. He identified the $4,000 bicycle that was taken from his yard, right down to the worn leather seat and the unique braiding of the front wheel spokes.

The bike took him years to compile from vintage parts, and is an exact replica of one he made for his wife.

Beyond having his black Surly Pacer recovered, Wheeler said he likes the idea of having bicycle officers in the neighborhood.

''When I encounter a police officer on a bike, they're a lot more approachable. You guys seem in a better mood,'' he said to the two officers as they took his stolen bike report at the Midtown Community Policing Center on Preble Street.

Geib said the bicycle patrols do give officers a chance to interact with people more than they can from a cruiser.

''Just like the old foot beat strategy -- the officer knows the people and talks to the people,'' he said. But foot beats can limit an officer's mobility. ''The bikes are a nice in-between.''

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

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