Pedal-pow­ered po­lice

LR bike pa­trol of­fi­cers give neigh­bor­hoods per­sonal touch

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - STYLE - BRIAN SCOTT RIPPEE

The group rides to­gether, look­ing out for one an­other at ev­ery turn and in ev­ery di­rec­tion.

Lit­tle Rock’s Com­mu­nity Ori­ented Polic­ing unit is a small, tight-knit group that has got­ten a bit smaller in the 25 years since it was founded in 1992. The down­town bike pa­trol has five of­fi­cers, with one tem­po­rar­ily side­lined be­cause of an in­jury.

“As a COP bike of­fi­cer you get to get out and know your neigh­bor­hood more,” down­town COP Sgt. Van Wat­son said. From the in­for­mal­ity of a bi­cy­cle, po­lice meet res­i­dents, and res­i­dents get to know po­lice. “They feel more of a con­nec­tion to you some­how. If there is a prob­lem, they are more likely to call you.”

Wat­son over­sees the COP down­town bike pa­trol di­vi­sion, the largest of Lit­tle Rock’s three bike di­vi­sions. The north­west and southwest di­vi­sions each have two bi­cy­cle-rid­ing of­fi­cers.

Wat­son has been with the depart­ment for 19 years and has been on bike pa­trol for a cu­mu­la­tive four years.

He and of­fi­cers Stacey Cham­bers, Mar­quise Good­low and Kel­ley Crace mount their bikes and hit the streets daily, look­ing to main­tain safety as well as es­tab­lish a con­nec­tion with their com­mu­nity.

Each sports a hel­met, a bul­let-re­sis­tant vest un­der a breath­able blue shirt and bike pants that can con­vert into shorts. It’s a uni­form that helps them min­i­mize phys­i­cal risks, es­pe­cially from the weather, while they travel routes that some­times stretch 10 or 15 miles.

“When you got the vest on, noth­ing is ‘breath­able,’” Cham­bers said. She has more than five years of ex­pe­ri­ence on bike pa­trol and 17 to­tal in law enforcement. The four of­fi­cers to­gether have 62 com­bined years of ex­pe­ri­ence.

In a bag rest­ing be­hind the seat and above the rear wheel of the bike, each car­ries ci­ta­tion pa­pers, a bike lock and a kit of tools in case a chain or a flat tire needs to be re­paired.

“We ride to­gether, so when we are out and see a group of kids, we will stop and talk to them,” Wat­son said. “They like the bikes, they like to come up and talk to us.”

Also in the bag is a col­lec­tion of stick­ers and var­i­ous toys they give to chil­dren.

“It al­lows us to talk to the neigh­bors, play with the kids for a minute and give them the op­por­tu­nity to see the po­lice as a per­son,” Good­low said.

Com­mu­nity polic­ing of­fi­cers com­mu­ni­cate with roughly 25 neigh­bor­hood as­so­ci­a­tions city­wide, each of­fi­cer of­ten as­signed to rep­re­sent the force to five or six groups, ac­cord­ing to Wat­son. The unit, with foot-, mounted- and bike pa­trols, started with 20 of­fi­cers, and peaked at 30 in 1997, but has shrunk along with the Po­lice Depart­ment, which as a whole is un­der­staffed, par­tic­u­larly among car pa­trol of­fi­cers, who

are the depart­ment’s first staffing pri­or­ity, Wat­son said.

“Pa­trol is the back­bone of the Po­lice Depart­ment. I won’t lie about that,” Wat­son said.

The goal of COP pa­trol is to cre­ate a bond and build trust with the com­mu­nity.

“I think some peo­ple ex­pect the worst out of po­lice some­times and are sur­prised when they find out that we are reg­u­lar peo­ple do­ing a job,” Crace said. Get­ting to know peo­ple one-on-one com­bats the hu­man ten­dency to “paint a broad brush that ev­ery­one is a bad ap­ple, when it is cer­tainly not the case.”

The of­fi­cers say their bikes hu­man­ize po­lice in a way that flash­ing lights and loud sirens can­not.

“More peo­ple will wave at you and speak to you when you are on the bike,” Crace said. “It is al­most like it con­nects with peo­ple dif­fer­ently [from the po­lice cruiser]. I do not know if it is be­cause peo­ple are used to the car driv­ing by. On a bike you are close.”

They’ve come to know many of the peo­ple in the neigh­bor­hoods they’re as­signed to and so have de­vel­oped the abil­ity to solve prob­lems that aren’t nec­es­sar­ily crimes.

“In my area, I have a lot of el­derly peo­ple,” Good­low said. “They will call my cell­phone or my alert cen­ter and it is just what­ever is both­er­ing them. It doesn’t have to be po­lice-re­lated.”

Cham­bers re­mem­bers a re­cent call from a mother who was con­cerned about her son’s mis­be­hav­ing in school. Cham­bers talked with the child, and his be­hav­ior has im­proved.

“I don’t look at it like I am get­ting on to you,” she said. “I look at it as a mother-like fig­ure.”

“When I can help, I feel like I have ac­com­plished some­thing in my day.”

That’s not to say this group avoids the dan­ger that comes with be­ing a po­lice of­fi­cer. The unit shrank from five to four re­cently after of­fi­cer Charles Star­ratt was on pa­trol search­ing for a rob­bery sus­pect and fell off his bike. The fall in­jured his shoul­der, sidelin­ing him for at least six months.

In a lot of ways, be­ing on the bike puts these of­fi­cers closer to crim­i­nal ac­tiv­ity.

“Peo­ple see a po­lice car faster than a bike. If you are do­ing some­thing il­le­gal, you are look­ing for a car,” Wat­son said. Il­le­gal sale? Ma­li­cious mis­chief? “By the time they re­al­ize it is the po­lice we have al­ready seen them.”

But they don’t have a car for pro­tec­tion from gun­fire or other as­sault. The COP unit may not be able to cover as much ground as a pa­trol car, but its of­fi­cers must act with as much or more cau­tion.

“We have a lot of train­ing with the bi­cy­cle when it comes to how we op­er­ate, get­ting on and off of it, putting it be­tween [our bod­ies and] some­one. You can use that bike to your ad­van­tage, and it is all through train­ing,” Crace said.

There’s a phys­i­cal and so­cial stan­dard that must be met to qual­ify for this form of po­lice work. An of­fi­cer must be in good enough phys­i­cal shape to pedal for miles and also be per­son­able enough to con­nect with res­i­dents.

“There is a lot more to it other than ‘We have to do the job.’ No one forced us to do this,” Crace said.

“When I started, I wanted to pro­tect peo­ple and serve. I love my job,” Wat­son said. After nearly two decades on the job, his an­nual salary is al­most $70,000, ac­cord­ing to pub­lic records as of April. But “it is not about the pay­check, be­cause we do not get paid much. It’s about lov­ing your job.

“I love com­ing to work.” As the lone sergeant on the team, Wat­son would like to see this unit grow. Of­fi­cers be­ing as­signed to five and six neigh­bor­hoods at a time makes it harder to con­nect with cit­i­zens on a per­sonal level. He would love to see one of­fi­cer as­signed to each neigh­bor­hood. With more of­fi­cers on the bike pa­trol, more peo­ple would see po­lice as hu­mans try­ing to lend a help­ing hand.

Arkansas Demo­crat-Gazette/JOHN SYKES JR.

Lit­tle Rock bike pa­trol of­fi­cer Kel­ley Crace (from left), Sgt. Van Wat­son and of­fi­cer Mar­quise Good­low pre­pare for a day on pa­trol.

Arkansas Demo­crat-Gazette/JOHN SYKES JR.

Of­fi­cer Kel­ley Crace (left) and Sgt. Van Wat­son pedal through an al­ley near 12th and Cedar streets in Lit­tle Rock. The bike pa­trol of­ten rides 10 to 15 miles a day.

Arkansas Demo­crat-Gazette/JOHN SYKES JR.

Sgt. Van Wat­son (right) meets res­i­dents one-on-one as part of the Lit­tle Rock Po­lice Depart­ment bike pa­trol, along with of­fi­cers Kel­ley Crace (left) and Mar­quise Good­low.

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