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Pedal patrol

West Linn police officers take their bicycles to the streets
by: VERN UYETAKE Officer Ryan Lesmeister flashes the lights on his bike. The bikes are also equipped with sirens.

Sure, police officers can drive cars and motorcycles at high speeds, navigate dangerous intersections and utilize evasive maneuvers, but how do they rate on bicycles?

Officers in the West Linn Police Department have got some two-wheeled moves that would impress both young and old, thanks to training and practice.

One can't help but be impressed watching Sgt. Neil Hennelly, fully loaded with all his gear, approach on his bike. All in one fluid motion, he throws one leg to the other side, flips down the kickstand, stops the bike and walks away, never looking back.

Hennelly calls it the 'Starbucks stop,' because it's smooth and professional. He added that police never come to a complete stop and then get off their bikes like most of us do.

The police department incorporated bicycles into its fleet six years ago. The bikes are used during city functions like parades and festivals and help with neighborhood patrol and community outreach. The bikes let officers interact more with the public while still being mobile. What may start as a leisurely bike ride patrolling a neighborhood can quickly escalate to trailing a suspect or pulling over a vehicle. When those situations arise, officers need to know how to handle a bike and use it to its full potential.

To learn the necessary skills, interested officers take a 40-hour training with the Portland police through the Law Enforcement Bike Association. There, they ride bikes indoors and down stairs. They practice dismounts and stopping. They practice riding in crowds and transitioning from the bike to a foot chase. They even ride on the pistol range to practice getting off the bikes and engaging with a suspect.

'Sometimes you get off these things tumbling,' Hennelly said. 'We have a lot of things on our belt that can get tangled up.'

Officers also learn about nutrition, hydration and bike maintenance.

The police department owns four Cannondale Interceptors. The bikes are lightweight and have durable, heavy-duty aluminum frames.

'Our gear weighs more than the bike,' Hennelly said.

The bikes are outfitted with blue and red lights on the front, an ear-piercing siren and first aid supplies in a bag on the back. A unique aspect of the bikes is that they are completely silent - there is no clicking sound that is typical of most bikes - which allows officers to approach scenes or people without notice.

Since officers use the bikes most often in large crowds, riding at low speeds takes extra skill.

'It's harder to ride slow than fast,' Officer Ryan Lesmeister said.

One slow-speed drill officers practice is called an 'M' box. They set up traffic cones in the formation of the letter 'M' in an area the size of a parking space and practice zigzagging between the cones without putting their feet down.

Hennelly said the bikes are useful when a suspect runs from the police. He said an officer can ride the bike much longer and farther than someone can run, so an officer can just keep pace with the fleeing suspect and wait until he or she tires out.

'I call it the trail and taunt,' Hennelly said. 'I can ride 10 feet away from you and talk to you (and negotiate). I'll tell them, 'You're just going to go to jail tired.' '

If an officer needs to ditch the bike and chase a suspect on foot, he does a running dismount. Instead of putting down the kickstand and calmly walking away from the bike, the officer will swing his leg over and start running while tossing the bike as far as possible.

'The bike can be fixed,' Lesmeister said.

If a person is agitated or upset, an officer can place the bike between them, creating some distance. In more drastic cases, an officer can use the bike as a shield or raise it up on one wheel to block an attacker.

Not just pedestrians are being pulled over by bike. The officers have used the bikes to pull over cars, too. Common offenses include talking or texting on cell phones, illegal U-turns or running stop signs.

'It hurts their pride a little bit,' said Lesmeister of drivers getting pulled over by a bicycle.

Officer Brad Moyle, who typically drives a motorcycle, has even pulled over a drunk driver while on bicycle patrol.

The bikes also serve as a bridge between the public and the community. Officers ride the bikes in parades and other city events. Lesmeister said he notices more people come and talk to him when he is on a bicycle rather than when sitting in a patrol car.

'People love to talk about the bike,' he said. 'Oregon is a super bike-loving town.'

Officers share their bike know-how with the community by hosting a bike rodeo for kids each summer. They teach kids the importance of helmets, how to ride bikes safely and to obey traffic laws.

The exercise biking provides officers is just another bonus. Between the weight of their belts and the added heat of the Kevlar vests, throw in some West Linn hills and officers can work up a good sweat.

The bicycle routes also offer a little variety to what can become routine days.

'It's a good opportunity for folks to get out and do something different,' Hennelly said. 'It's more challenging to (officers) than riding around in the car.'

What is Hennelly's biggest safety tip for bike riders of all ages?

'Helmets, helmets, helmets,' he said. 'Closely followed by 'obey traffic laws.' Stop signs are not conditional.'

'It's great to get your kids to wear helmets,' added Lesmeister. 'But you need to wear one, too.'

As the rainy season begins, the police will be using the bicycles less. However, the police department would like to institute a full-time bicycle patrol during the summers when staffing and funding allow.