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