Cops on bikes: an experimentation in community policing | Neighborhood News | Chicago Reader

Cops on bikes: an experimentation in community policing 

These Parts: Joliet, IL

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Dwayne Killian has given lots of tickets in his seven years as a police officer in Joliet. Last year, though, people began to react differently when he wrote them up. "Like one guy," he recalls. "He says, 'Do whatever you gotta do--just don't tell nobody you gave me a ticket while you were on a bicycle.'"

Last spring Joliet joined the 300-plus American cities that have permanent bicycling police units. From May to September Killian and his partner use bikes to patrol streets, stop motorists, and make arrests. This year Joliet put two more cops on bikes and started training four more.

Everyone at the Joliet PD says it was Killian's idea. He says he got it during a police softball tournament a couple of years ago in Dayton, Ohio. There officers told him they used bicycles to patrol year-round. Killian persuaded his department to take a close look at how Dayton and other cities practiced law enforcement on two wheels.

"It wasn't a hard sell," says Joliet police chief Joseph Beazley, who gave the final approval. "I'm always willing to try new things."

Joliet may be more open to changes like this thanks to a program the city instituted more than two years ago: community policing. The term means different things to different people, but most would agree that the motive behind it is to get police officers more involved with the day-to-day problems of the people they serve.

Joliet decided on community policing, says Chief Beazley, when traditional methods failed to curb growing crime. He says, "It's something you're going to find in any city." Although Joliet is only a city of 70,000, police there say that Joliet's crime mirrors that of larger places. "Its demographics, its incidents, its gangs," says one official, "are almost identical to police districts in Chicago."

Officials also worry about increased crime in the developing areas near the city's riverboat casinos. The city's second casino opened last month in the recently renovated downtown, and two more will soon be afloat. The influx of tourists has further compelled police to rethink their methods.

"One of the big problems with traditional incident-driven policing is that most of the officer's time is devoted to responding to calls," says Beazley. Community policing, he says, gives cops the time and flexibility to know their beat so well that they can act on problems before they become crimes.

Killian and his partner Dave Saxon were among the 22 officers chosen for the community-policing program. They were assigned to Jefferson Street, the main business thoroughfare on Joliet's west side--a beat that cuts across three of the department's regular patrol zones.

"They wanted us to get out of the squad car and talk to people," says Killian. "But a lot of the area is parking lots, and we'd spend a lot of time walking and not really doing anything--so I came up with the idea of bikes."

When it comes to new ways of policing, bicycling is an idea that's "often tossed around," says Sandy Kaminska, a consultant to the Joliet Police. Kaminska works for the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), a 16-year-old national association that helps departments find public and private funding for new programs then helps implement them.

Kaminska says that some departments "have a bicycle squad just to have one. . . . It's kind of a nice PR thing." But to go beyond mere public relations, she believes, requires more than just taking cops out of squad cars and sitting them on bikes.

The community-policing program gives officers the freedom to decide where to spend their time. Killian says bicycles complement community policing because they make officers easier to approach. "When you're talking to people from a squad car, it's like a barrier," he says. "It's intimidating. But when you're on a bike, people say, 'Stop, come over here'--everyone wants to talk to you.

"I mean, they have this image of a fat policeman sitting in a squad car eating doughnuts and drinking coffee. . . . It gives them a different attitude about the police."

Killian says that bikes also help cops cover more ground and make it easier to catch wrongdoers. Joliet business owners, for example, frequently complained about unruly late-night gatherings in their parking lots. The offending youths could easily spot approaching squad cars and bolt before police got there. "Now, with these bikes, we go in without them noticing," Killian says. "We'll stand there talking to 'em until they say 'Wait a minute--you guys are cops?' They're, like, shocked."

Initially, some of Killian's fellow officers scoffed at bicycling. He says, "They thought it would be here and gone within a couple weeks. They laughed, big time, at our uniforms, our shorts, stuff like that." Then Killian began to catch law-breaking motorists, weaving his bike between cars at stoplights. "I called in four traffic stops in a row, and a couple guys came by for a backup. And they said, 'You're making all those stops on a bike?'"

Killian says his and Saxon's presence on Jefferson Street cut the number of calls for police by 500, or 12 percent, from the previous year. This alone might have justified the cost of the program--but it's cost the department almost nothing.

In 1991 the Joliet Police, with help from PERF, received a four-year grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to address drug-related crime. Joliet used the money to begin community policing, says Chief Beazley, by funding new hires and "a tremendous amount of training." The grant paid for cops-on-bikes training for all eight officers, which included a trip to Florida for an international conference of bicycling police, where cops learned techniques for fast dismounts and sudden turns.

Equipment was another matter, says Kaminska. The grant money "is approved for certain items--and things like training are easy to get approval for. Buying bicycles is a little tough." She says Killian was instrumental in equipping the four officers bicycling this year.

"He made sure that publicity got in the paper about how effective the bicycle patrol was," says Kaminska, "and what kind of arrests were being made, that these were actually police officers trained to make traffic stops on a bicycle.

"When people would say things like, 'Gee, we'd like one in our area,' we'd say, 'Well, the equipment's so expensive.' It was kind of subtle--there were no official letters or anything that went out." Donations paid for three of the four bikes, accessories, and the officers' uniforms. And police are confident that area businesses will help out when the patrol expands into downtown.

The federal grant that funded Joliet's extra officers and training runs out in 1994. By then, Chief Beazley says, his department's entire structure and methods will reflect community policing--so even if the city can't afford the extra cops, bicycling will continue.

Beazley says such changes would take years longer in a police department the size of Chicago's--where he spent the first 30 years of his career. The Chicago department, for example, has fielded a lakefront bicycling unit for the second time this year, but its officers say the department has been slow to fund training and equipment. And Chicago hasn't tied bicycling to its community-policing experiment.

Perhaps another reason Joliet police are more given to change is their age: their first bicycling cop, the 34-year-old Killian, is near the average age for Joliet's finest, which is about 10 years younger than the average Chicago officer.

But older, more mature officers might take more readily to bicycling, says Killian's partner Dave Saxon--who at age 42 has carried a badge for half of his life. "Most of us have the John Wayne syndrome when we start as police officers . . . very aggressive," he says. "I think with the bicycling job, you have to be more laid-back."

But whether their model is John Wayne or Columbo, Saxon and Killian share a newfound concern. "I didn't really know the problems bicyclists have," says Killian. "Most people have an attitude about bicyclists that isn't very nice." In a typical scenario, he says, a motorist is "getting ready to yell at me and get out of their car until they see that I'm a policeman." His partner agrees. Now that he's no longer in one, says Saxon, "my biggest worry is getting hit by a car."

For information on Joliet, see the Visitors' Guide in this issue.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.

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