St. Paul police bicycle patrol aims to stop youth activity
ST. PAUL — This summer, St. Paul police have been trying out a new tool that makes them stealthier while patrolling streets in the Hamline-Midway neighborhood.
It's called a bicycle.
Four officers in the police department's Western District have been assigned full time to patrol on bicycles this summer. The pilot program was set up to address complaints about groups of young people hanging out on the streets, sometimes getting into fights, shoplifting or other trouble, along the Central Corridor, according to police spokesman Steve Linders.
St. Paul has put police on bikes as far back as 1897, according to officer Jason Bain, one of the officers now patrolling on two wheels in St. Paul.
More recently, police units around the country started riding mountain bikes in the 1990s after Seattle police started a bike program.
St. Paul largely has used bikes in the past in the downtown area, especially to keep the peace at big public events such as the Republican National Convention in St. Paul in 2008.
But now the police are seeing if bikes can be used in neighborhoods to catch drug dealers and garage burglars.
Bain said people still don't expect to see a pedaling police officer, which sometimes has meant officers quietly can roll up to a crime in progress without alerting the criminals.
"The criminals hate it. At first, they don't realize we're cops and we're on bikes," Bain said.
There are some disadvantages.
"We don't have that 3,000-pound vehicle to protect us," Bain said.
A bike can't haul many of the tools, such as a computer or a shotgun, that a police officer normally might take on patrol.
The bike police carry whistles, but they don't have lights or sirens. When they make an arrest, they have to call a squad car to transport the suspect. Their handcuffs double as bike locks.
But Bain said in some situations, such as a protest march that shuts down a street, bikes can give police more mobility than a squad car.
An officer on a bicycle is more approachable than an officer inside a squad car. That means more engagement opportunities.
A "softer" uniform — a polo shirt and shorts instead of a regulation shirt and blue wool trousers — also helps break down barriers.
"It's a different tool the police department can use to be visible," said Bain, 41, who also is a police bike instructor. "It's community engagement, and it's enforcement."
Bain and his partner, David "Bo" Ratley, did some of both on a ride this past week.
Starting out from the department's Western District office on Hamline Avenue near University, they biked up to Hamline Park and handed out stickers to the kids playing there.
They greeted pedestrians and other cyclists they encountered with "How's it going?" or "Hey, sir, how are you doing?"
One man working in his yard shouted back, "Nice to see you out here."
"That wouldn't happen to you if you were in a squad car, or even on foot," Bain said.
Ratley said people often offer the officers water or coffee.
But one person they greeted on the street started swearing at them.
"He's known to police. Some days he'll chat with you, and other days he's like he was there," said Ratley, 39. "The ones that cause problems do not like us at all."
Bain said the pair cover 5 to 25 miles per shift. They have roamed to the St. Paul Cathedral up to Como Park and down to Highland Park, trying to hit the places where police see a spike in reports of burglary complaints or other problems.
One day this past week, they cruised down the alleys near Frogtown in hopes of seeing a potential suspect in a series of dog-poisoning incidents there this summer.
They checked in at the CVS Pharmacy on Snelling and University avenues, talking with customers and store clerks. They also stopped to talk with two men who were washing car windshields for money in the drug store parking lot.
"Have you guys got permission to be out here?" Bain asked.
"We're not bothering anybody," said one of the men.
"I get that; I get that," Bain said.
But he told the men if the store complains, they'll have to come back and ask them to move.
They stopped when they saw a woman sitting on the curb, talking on her cellphone, her eyes red from crying.
Though the woman told them she didn't need help from police, Ratley said they might not have noticed her and stopped if they were speeding by in a squad car.
Much of the time, they roll slowly, peering into parked cars as they pass. They're looking for potential drug deals, drinking from open containers, kids fighting. Not necessarily major crimes, but they're the issues that bother people and businesses in the neighborhood.
"You can really monitor the quality-of-life crimes," Ratley said.
Once, Bain said, he stopped another cyclist who blew through a stop sign. Bicyclists are obligated to follow traffic laws just like other vehicles, Bain said.
"While I'm on a bike, if I don't enforce the bike laws, who will?" he said.
After the cyclist was stopped, a bag of marijuana fell out of his pocket, Bain said. The cyclist also had more than $1,000 in cash and more drugs packaged for resale, Bain said.
"Just a minor traffic violation yielded a good arrest," he said.
While rolling down an alley near Asbury Street and Edmund Avenue this past week, Bain caught a whiff of a distinctive odor.
"Smell that?" Bain said.
The two officers then stopped two young men nearby on the street who they said were passing a marijuana cigarette back and forth.
"I can smell burnt marijuana," Bain told one man. "I can smell it when you left the alleyway."
"That's my cologne," the man said.
Ratley briefly handcuffed the man he questioned after the man initially refused to identify himself. Ratley said the lack of cooperation at the beginning could escalate into a fight, and it's safer for everyone to eliminate the possibility early in the process.
"A little bit of hostility at the beginning, but everything leveled out," he said.
The men were let go because there wasn't enough evidence to make an arrest, according to the police.
"We saw them smoke it, but they got rid of it," Ratley said. "He was saying, 'I can smoke weed.' No, you can't."
Bain said the encounter still delivered a message that police are not going to ignore low-level offenses that bother neighborhood residents.
"It's a petty misdemeanor, but it's a crime," Bain said.