Patrol cars are fast and convenient, but in some cases pedal power is more discreet and economical, Iowa law enforcement officials say.

Bike patrol units increasingly became part of Iowa police departments in the late 1990s. More recently, a broader range of law enforcement agencies have been utilizing bikes, Iowa Law Enforcement Academy officials said.

Agencies such as the Iowa State Patrol and county conservation boards now outfit officers with bikes. Last month, Boone County Conservation certified a ranger for the first time for bike patrol, a step Polk County Conservation took about four years ago.

“The bicycle is another way of getting around on the trail. It’s quieter and takes up much less room,” Boone County Conservation director Andy Hockenson said.

He noted an increase of bike activity in the county since the popular High Trestle Trail opened in 2011.

Troopers, rangers and police officers say using bikes means saving gas money, patrolling more discreetly, increasing contact with residents and monitoring areas where motorized vehicles are limited, such as the State Capitol grounds in Des Moines.

The Iowa State Patrol began patrolling that property by bike in 2007.

“It’s not just about putting an officer on a bike. It’s a different philosophical approach to how you do your job,” said Mark Edmund, Iowa Law Enforcement Academy instructor.

The academy, located at Camp Dodge in Johnston, has certified about 470 law enforcement officials in more than 100 Iowa agencies since launching a bike patrol training program in 1997.

Trail expansions

In the past 10 years, many miles of recreational trails have been added in Iowa. That trail network, one of Iowa’s top tourist attractions, has created greater demand for bike patrols, said Edmund, who has overseen the academy’s bike training program for more than a decade.

He said park rangers represent a growing group in bike training schools. For instance, Polk County Conservation has sent four rangers to the academy’s bike training program in an effort to better patrol the county’s 30-plus miles of hard-surface bike paths.

The majority of the police departments in the Des Moines metro area also use multiple bike-certified officers who regularly pedal along trails and neighborhood streets.

Altoona added a bike unit last year, certifying four officers through the academy’s 40-hour training program. That unit is now active around the clock, and has a routine night patrol that monitors neighborhood streets and bike trails and makes traffic stops.

Patrolling by bike takes advantage of many senses that are stifled or rendered useless inside a patrol car, Altoona Police Chief Jody Matherly and his officers said.

“You can hear, see and smell a lot more,” Altoona Police Officer Mike VanFosson said.

He interacts with more residents on a bike, he said. “You can be visible when you want to be visible and invisible when you want to be covert,” he said.

During his night shift, VanFosson regularly bikes more than 15 miles, often using a bike rack on a squad car to quickly move from one neighborhood or stretch of bike trail to another.

A busy night may include catching underage teens in a park with open containers of alcohol or surprising residents who thought wooded areas near the trails are safe places to smoke marijuana. Typical patrols often include sending children who are violating curfew home, looking into suspicious vehicles and talking to intoxicated patrons leaving bars, VanFosson said.

Depending on the model, a properly outfitted bike with flashing lights, sirens and storage compartments costs between $1,400 and $2,000, Matherly said.

“There are traffic stops, arrests and enforcements made,” he said.

Matherly said that, on his bike, he recently pulled over a high school student in a car for an improper turn at a traffic circle.

West Des Moines police began using bikes nearly 20 years ago. They officially organized a bike patrol unit in 1999, and it has stayed active with between six and 10 certified officers.

The department originally recorded the number of arrests and citations issued, but stopped because those statistics did not align with the ultimate purpose of a bike patrol, Sgt. Jason Brian said.

“The more important thing to us is the community relations part, stopping and talking to people,” Brian said.

Patrols effective

Bikes are assets for special events and crowd control in urban areas or in cities with college campuses.

In Cedar Falls, home of the University of Northern Iowa, officers often spend entire eight-hour shifts on bikes.

“It would be nothing for (officers) to put on 50 or 60 miles in a patrol shift,” Cedar Falls Police Capt. Jeff Sitzmann said.

The university campus and an intricate trail system create a high demand for bikes, Sitzmann said.

“They can get to places that cars and vehicles cannot, and they can get there much faster,” he said.

Cedar Falls has 10 bike-certified officers.

The savings on fuel and vehicle wear and tear adds up, Sitzmann said.

It costs about $3,000 to certify and outfit an officer with a bike and uniform, Sitzmann said. The cost includes a week of paid training.

No D.M. bike patrol

Bike patrols are not the solution for every urban police department, said Sgt. Jason Halifax of the Des Moines police.

Des Moines has not used a bike patrol unit for more than a decade, Halifax said.

Before 2001, a SWAT tactical team with the Des Moines Police Department used to organize a bike patrol unit. But most of those bike-certified officers have retired or shifted duties, Halifax said.

Only a couple of officers remain who occasionally ride bikes for special events, such as the Drake Relays or off-duty jobs when private organizations hire them.

Officers at Gray’s Lake drive small all-terrain vehicles for patrol, and the police department uses patrol cars to monitor city parks.

“I think we do well enough without having it,” Halifax said of a bike patrol.

Some metro cyclists say they understand the demand for law enforcement on bikes along trails and elsewhere.

Avid cyclist Bret Whitaker of Ankeny said he has encountered many cyclists who ride while intoxicated.

Whitaker said that during a recent ride in Slater, he saw an intoxicated woman ride her bike off the trail, down an embankment and into rocks and bushes. Officers on bikes could help minimize these instances, he said.

“I don’t want to be patrolled, but then I see so many stupid people way too drunk to be operating a vehicle, crossing through traffic,” Whitaker said.

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