THE ARRESTING ALLURE OF E-BIKES
Last year we worked with the Los Angeles Police Department on a pilot program to implement e-bikes into their patrol service (EBA, October 2018). At the time, then-Police Chief Charlie Beck was a huge fan of e-bikes. We went on a few e-bike rides with him and talked about the possibilities and potential efficacy of e-bikes in police work.
LAPD has long had a bicycle officer program. In fact, they have a fleet of 500 patrol bikes. Each officer must undergo a five-day training course to teach them the skills and tactics to handle the situations they may encounter in their line of duty. They are then able to be assigned to bicycle patrols for the next five years. Taking the training isn’t a guarantee they’ll be put on bike patrol, but it means they’re available for it. When the brass decides they need to be on a bike, they’ll be on a bike.
The retraining every five years is to reteach what they call “perishable skills.” Things that don’t get used daily tend to be forgotten over time. Also, new tactics and techniques are added or refined, so the officers get the best training available at that time. LAPD also trains officers from other departments in other cities as well.
Their program is run by Sergeant Matt Bygum and Officer John Twine, veterans of the force with decades of riding experience. Both tall and imposing yet very personable, the duo loves both riding bikes and training officers. Bygum is in charge of the curriculum, and it took months to come up with an e-bike-specific training op.
ONE YEAR IN
The first 20 bikes were rationed out between Downtown Division, Hollywood Division and Pacific Division. The first two are areas with heavy traffic, where bikes can easily slice through the gridlock of Los Angeles traffic, where sometimes cars cannot move.
We talked to one officer from the Downtown Division about a call he received to go to the Staples Center, which is a mile away from police headquarters. He was there in two minutes, a feat that could have taken 20 minutes or more to make his way through the highly congested downtown area in a squad car.
A typical beat for a regular bike cop is about a square mile. The e-bikes have allowed officers to expand that up to around four miles. Officers in squad cars are generally less approachable to the public. On a bike, they can easily stop and talk to the public. We went on a few ride-along trips with the Hollywood Division recently, and the interactions were frequent and very friendly.
THE STREETS OF HOLLYWOOD
One of the most famous streets in America, Hollywood Boulevard is home to the Walk of Fame, the sidewalk embedded with large stars denoting many famous celebrities. It is a touristy area that every first-time visitor to Los Angeles usually goes to. There’s a rich history here with a lot of people trying to capitalize on the tourism, with everything from actors dressing up as famous movie and cartoon characters to street vendors and people selling tours of the stars’ homes.
We were invited to ride with the Hollywood Division, a tight-knit group of bicycle officers who are all mounted on new e-bikes. When they first received the bikes, they made some modifications. They added a sturdier kickstand than the original and swapped the original-spec Schwalbe Super Moto-X tires for more aggressive Schwalbe Smart Sams to assist when they have to go off-road into the Hollywood Hills.
“As we ride down Hollywood Boulevard, people shout excited hellos to the officers, and the officers know many of the people by name.”
The department has added to their fleet, nearly doubling the number of bikes. Going up into the hills is good training for the officers in terms of bike skills, because some of the officers only ride bikes at work, others ride quite a bit outside of work, and tend to have greater handling skills. They do train on a variety of surfaces in the hills, where there is dry sand, hard-packed trails, even broken concrete. They had to ride those same trails recently to look for homeless encampments to ensure nobody was going to start a fire during wildfire season.
At the start of a shift, the officers gather together for roll call and lunch before pedaling off. They inspect their bikes and equipment before they go, ensuring they have everything needed to do their work. They set off as a pack, all riding together at first. The officers will at times break off into smaller groups of two to four. They never ride solo. They know all the usual places where crimes are often committed, and they check them regularly.
The streets of Hollywood may be lined with stars, but it’s also full of potholes and damaged pavement, making it a bit of a brutal ride, even with a suspension fork. It is kind of fun splitting lanes in traffic with a group of officers. Drivers are just a little more courteous to them than they sometimes are to normal cyclists.
Each officer has an area of expertise. Since California has virtually banned modifications to automobile exhaust systems, the officers can detect some of these modifications by sound, especially if the car is significantly louder.
Others are excellent at spotting drug deals. A pair of officers stopped two transient men who were working on a drug transaction. One of the men had crystal meth, and when the officers approached him, he tried to swallow some of it. The officers stopped him, as that could have been lethal. They called in a squad car to take him away.
Next, we came upon two tourists jaywalking across the street. One of the officers admonished them with a little sarcasm, “You know, it would be a great thing if we started putting crossing lines in the road and maybe a big ‘walk’ sign so you’d know where to cross the street!” They laughed, knowingly.
Their interactions are almost always friendly. You can tell just by the way they treat the people they encounter and how much they care about the community. As we rode down Hollywood Boulevard, people shouted excited hellos to the officers, and the officers knew many people by name.
Originally, the officers expected to need to occasionally swap batteries. They started with the same range anxiety that everyone new to e-bikes has. It turns out that they ride in Eco, usually slow most of the time, only jumping into Turbo mode when they have to quickly get somewhere or catch a car. This way, the batteries can last two to three shifts between charges.
FROM THE CHIEF
When the program first started, Chief Beck was full of enthusiasm. “I’m hoping it takes off,” he said. “As you know, you’re one of the true believers in this. People don’t really understand what they are. When you try to explain e-bikes, nobody understands exactly how they work. They think they’re something like a motorcycle, which, of course, they’re not. But, the Class 3 bikes like the Bulls we have are really fast downtown, and it lets us cover a lot
The pilot program seems to have panned out. With a second order of bikes, and more on the way, the e-bikes have become a great asset to the work the police officers do. They couldn’t provide hard numbers, but all of the officers raved about how much better their response times are. They can provide backup almost anywhere within 1–2 minutes. We were also told that other large cities’ police departments are looking into e-bikes for patrolling. More cops on bikes? That’s a good thing.
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