With a top speed of 20 to 28 mph, an e-bike may not rival the horsepower of a patrol car, but for the law enforcement officers who ride them, they have some distinct advantages.
“We can navigate the street a lot faster than we can in a car. It’s easier for people to flag us down, and they allow us to be more observant because we aren’t moving as fast,” said Santa Barbara, Calif., Police Department Sgt. Chris Payne.
A growing trend
According to the International Police Mountain Bike Association, police have used traditional bikes in their work since the 19th century, but there are natural downsides to the manual methods. Besides requiring a lot of energy from the rider, they are heavier because of the additional equipment they must hold, and in terms of speed, they can’t hold a candle to a patrol car.
However, new technology has made e-bikes a growing trend for departments looking to make the shift and give officers a boost. Research has shown that officers not only get to a scene a lot faster, but they also arrive less fatigued, which gives them more energy to perform their duties. It also encourages more officers to join bike patrols, knowing that they will get some extra assistance from the mechanism rather than relying on their own “pedal power.”
Like other California departments, the SBPD already had several officers who rode mountain bikes throughout their patrol area, which includes a big waterfront district. However, when one commander saw an e-bike demonstration at a law enforcement convention, he knew it was a game changer and something that his bike unit might be interested in. The department secured a grant to purchase three Trek e-bikes, which cost about $5,000 each, and after a successful trial, the Santa Barbara Police Foundation donated another $25,000 to put five more e-bikes on the road.
The Trek police/service e-bike is built exclusively for the men and women of law enforcement, who require quality construction, state-of-the-art components and patrol-ready features, such as a wire rack and a kickstand. And although they are traditional bikes at their core, they come equipped with an electric motor that assists the officer on his or her ride. As the individual pedals, the motor engages to give the bike a speed boost so that it can move swiftly and smoothly across all types of terrain and inclines, making things a lot easier on the person in the saddle.
“You have to pedal in order for the motor to engage, and the bike stops providing mechanical assistance at 28 mph,” Payne said. “We get about 60 miles per charge, and our officers generally ride about 10 to 15 miles per shift, so it works out really well.”
SBPD has a four-person unit that uses the bikes regularly in addition to Payne. Each bike is fitted out with a Panier zippered pouch that sits over the rear fender, secured to the wired rack. The officers wear their utility belt as well as a modified uniform that is lightweight and wicks moisture away from the body during a ride.
“The modified uniform is especially helpful when you are on the bike,” Payne said.
Getting the job done
In addition to helping officers get to a scene a lot faster than before, e-bikes also provide the opportunity to get more officers involved in bike patrol — especially those who were sidelines due to the physical challenges of traditional cycling. They are also better for the environment than a patrol car, cost less and help officers become more approachable to members of the public who might not otherwise engage with them.
Payne said that a patrol car can be intimidating to some and a barrier to effective communication. An e-bike, however, makes an officer more approachable and offers a “cool factor” that serves as a conversation starter, helping officers engage with local citizens. They are also overlooked by would-be offenders.
“Of course, the calls we get are typically quality-of-life calls,” Payne said. “Due to our warm climate and fair weather, our downtown area is inundated with members of the homeless population as well as those with addiction issues. If we are in close proximity to someone in need of helps, we can ride on sidewalks or cut through a smaller access point in less time than an officer in a patrol car can. The only thing we can’t do it take someone into custody.”
For municipalities looking to find out if an e-bike patrol would be right for their community, Payne suggests evaluating the large events they have that could benefit from a bike patrol. Parades, county fairs and assorted festivals are typical events in which a police presence is needed and where an e-bike patrol could be helpful provided officers are trained correctly. “If you live in a rural area, then it really doesn’t make sense, but for a tight downtown community or a college campus, it’s a great option,” he said.