Ga. bike cops bring crime-fighting to sidewalks and park paths

There are some places police cruisers just can't go

By Chelsea Cook
Atlanta Journal-Constitution

DeKALB, Ga. — The brakes stop sharp. Right gear is rear gear. Same road, same rules.

The new DeKalb County police bicycle unit is learning fast. And the officers have the calf muscles to prove it.

The unit hit the streets, sidewalks and park paths of DeKalb County for the first time last week since being restarted under interim police Chief William O'Brien.

"I thought DeKalb would be a good county for a bike unit," Officer Jeremy Turner said. "So I talked to some friends of mine in [the Atlanta Police Department] and looked at what model they were using."

The bicycles, helmets and vehicle racks cost $38,700 of a $300,956 stimulus package given to the DeKalb Police Department under the federal government's Justice Assistance Grant in 2008. DeKalb taxpayers aren't paying a dime for the unit, made up of two teams of riders and 27 Jamis-brand mountain bikes. It's estimated the new program will actually save taxpayers money.

"It has to save money on gas," Lt. Joe Artime said. "We're not patrolling these areas in as many vehicles as we typically would."

The bike unit will patrol malls, neighborhoods and parks. It also will pay close attention to areas with heavy foot traffic or high volumes of crime.

Since their training began in the spring, the officers have patrolled the neighborhoods of Kensington, Lavista Road, North Druid Hills and Toco Hills.

While an increase in bicycle usage is typically associated with "going green," Artime said it was not DeKalb's primary intention.

"We don't do it for green reasons; we do it for crime," Artime said. "It's quiet. Suspects don't expect us to be on a bike. Cars are loud."

Artime and Turner emphasized the value of a "sneak approach" in situations such as vehicle smash and grabs or vandalism. But once they see a suspect, how do they chase him down?

"Usually, if we have a couple of bikes out, we have a car nearby," Officer Ron Ferriero explained.

The bicycle unit officers are equipped just as officers in cars. They are armed. They also have a set of handcuffs, ticketing pads and a radio, which is especially key.

Unless issuing citations, officers almost always call for vehicle assistance to transport suspects.

Officers on bikes also can go places that vehicles can't, such as bike paths, woods, high-traffic areas and festivals. It is also much easier for the officers to permeate local communities --- one of the most effective uses of the bike unit, according to Turner.

"For a long time DeKalb lost touch with the community, but this is a way to get back in touch with them," Turner said.

All of the officers on bikes referred to instances of DeKalb residents flagging them down to talk, introducing themselves or simply waving hello.

"There's not a barrier there," Officer Jason Gagnon said. "Literally, the walls of the car aren't between the officer and the community."

Other Atlanta-area police departments with bike units besides Atlanta's include Fulton, Gwinnett and Cobb county and Newnan.

But are the officers all right with riding their bikes in this Atlanta heat?

"You've got to be somewhat physically fit to ride a bike," Turner said. "But where else can you get paid to get in shape?"

Copyright 2010 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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