Tampa cops get sneaky on donated bikes

Turns off lights on his patrol bicycle and rides in the shadows, up and down stairs and between buildings and across parks

Elisabeth Parker
St. Petersburg Times

BELMONT HEIGHTS, Fla. — Tampa police usebikes, mostly donated, to get close to lawbreakers.

Troublemakers don't see Bob Barrett coming.

The Tampa police officer turns off lights on his patrol bicycle and rides in the shadows, up and down stairs and between buildings and across parks.

"I can usually be on top of somebody in no time," he said recently as he climbed astride a new bicycle.

Tampa police are patrolling on bikes more and more these days. The two-wheelers, they say, increase stealth when dealing with criminals and allow officers more accessibility to people in the community.

Recently, the managing company of Belmont Heights Estates donated two mountain bikes costing $1,800 each and equipped with flashing lights and sirens.

Barrett took one for a spin through the low-income complex of 966 apartments.

A woman in her yard hailed him as he rode by. She introduced herself and told him about neighborhood hot spots for crime. That doesn't happen when you drive by at 30 miles per hour, said Barrett.

The police department has 39 bikes, mostly donated. And police Chief Jane Castor wants more. For now, the department has no money to pay for bikes, so the donations from neighborhood associations and private businesses who want such patrols help keep crime down.

Law-abiding citizens are more likely to approach an officer when they can see his face, Castor said.

"The criminals are the losers," she said. "They can't hide."

Tampa police started using bicycles to patrol in the early 1990s, although they had been used in some undercover operations before that time, Castor said.

These days officers ride bikes in an array of communities, including downtown, Drew Park, North Boulevard Homes, Robles Park, Sulphur Springs, Ybor City and areas of East Tampa. And now, police have added Belmont Heights to the list.

Drew Park's community advisory committee paid $3,000 for the bicycles in its diverse area with local and international businesses and homeowners. The crime rate is not particularly high, but chairwoman Maritza Astorquiza asked local officers how the committee could help, and members were sold on the advantages of bicycles.

"We think the bike patrol will add to the sense of community," Astorquiza said.

Officers go through a 40-hour training program, learning to balance on a bicycle with their gear, maneuver obstacles, ride up and down stairs, dismount and carry the bike - and even to use it as a shield or weapon. Officers are trained to hold up bikes to block themselves from harm and to throw them at criminals to ward off attacks.

Plus, "you can observe more in the community," said Kristina Duran, who has been patrolling part time for five years and teaches new officers to ride.

Once, an officer's keen nose detected the odor of fresh marijuana in the outdoor breeze, leading to a bust on a grow house.

Bicycles also enable officers to get to a scene more quickly in heavy traffic and go places a squad car can't - especially useful when patrolling crowds, such as parades. Castor plans to use bikes to patrol crowds next year when Tampa hosts the Republican National Convention.

At Belmont Heights Estates, the management company, Interstate Realty Management, plans to donate more bikes to patrol the 77 acres.

"The more bikes, the more coverage our community will get," said Larri McGovney, spokeswoman for the company.

Carrie Denson, 79, lives there and says kids in the area throw rocks at her house and smoke dope in the park.

"I'm real glad about it," she said of the bike patrols.

Barrett started patrolling on a bicycle eight years ago. On two wheels, he says, he can get within feet of a drug dealer before the dealer knows he's there. But the approach can be dangerous - and heavy. Barrett and his partner must ride with 20 pounds in bulletproof vests and belts with holsters.

Once, in the former Central Park Village, he rode around a footpath behind a building and caught two men passing a large bag of marijuana.

Another time, in Ybor City, he rode through back yards up to a car backed into a lot and caught a man inside packaging heroin.

Some rewards of bike patrolling are subtle.

More than once, for instance, Barrett and his partner have looked over their shoulders to find an entourage of giddy children on bicycles following behind.

Copyright 2011 Times Publishing Company

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