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Bicycle on patrol!

When you think about bicycles, what comes to mind?

For me it's a few things. Childhood memories of learning to ride a bike or biking over to a friend's house after school. Then there are the more recent pursuits like road races or teaching my daughter to ride a bike.

So, bicycles often conjure up recreational images.

But for another segment of the population, bicycles are another way for them to do their job: Police officers assigned to bicycle patrol.

Cortland Police Officer Jeff FItts stands by a police bicycle last week. He's not wearing the bike patrol gear, however, which would consist of shorts, his belt and a vest underneath his shirt. Lighter clothes and more suitable for the long day of riding that a shift entails.

Several area police departments have a bicycle patrol unit, the city of Cortland Police Department, SUNY Cortland University Police and the Homer Police Department, among them.

City Police Lt. David Guerrera said the city police department first established a bicycle patrol unit in 1994. It now has 12 officers and three sergeants assigned to bike patrol. The department has eight bikes for the job and they are switched out about every two years to keep the rotation up to date.

According to the International Police Mountain Bike Association, the earliest use of the bicycle by police could have been in 1869 when an Illinois sheriff reportedly supplied his deputies with boneshakers (what the early pedal bikes made in the 1860s were called, due to their heavy frame made of iron and wood). The bicycle mounted police were effective in patrolling and controlling scorchers (speeders on bicycles) and runaway horses

The bikes - and the crimes they respond to-have changed since then.

The bikes aren't used during the winter, but they are used in full force during events like last week's Dairy Parade. And besides motor vehicle accidents, officers use them to respond to any call they'd respond to in a car.

Officer Jeffrey Fitts has been a bicycle patrol officer for ten years and a police officer for the city department for 12 years. Bike school was the first school he attended after police academy and he remembers sailing through the physical requirements- like riding up and down stairs and down a very steep slope without falling off.

Fitts enjoys the physical aspect of the bike patrol, and the fact that it adds a deeper level of community engagement to policing.

People will more readily approach an officer on bike, without the full uniform and given the fact they're on what's basically a "toy," he said.

The patrols are useful, both Guerrera and Fitts say, especially for accessing the places that vehicles can't go, like parks, small alleyways and hidden spots near railroad tracks.

The bicycles come equipped with specialized lights and sirens, just like the police car does.

Fitts has even been able to apprehend suspects riding stolen bicycles, who can't get away because "we're on a bike too."

The police department has eight bicycles in its fleet, both Specialized and Trek, of varying sizes, all aluminum frame mountain bikes, with 26" tires. Action Sports in Cortland provides and maintains the fleet for the department.

The police force's bikes come equipped with a first aid kit, lights and sirens. The frames vary in size to fit the officers riding them and the shift is a demanding one for the officers. Fitts says it's not unusual to ride about 30 miles during a bicycle shift, while wearing about 30 pounds of gear. Hydration is key on warm days, he says.

But Fitts wants people to know the bike patrols-like all officers- are approachable.

"We have pretty much all the same abilities to help you as a patrol vehicle," said Fitts. "So don't be afraid to approach them and ask a question. That's why I'm here."

The Cortland Police Department's original four members of the bicycle patrol unit: Penny Guerrera, David Guerrera, Brandon Steele and William Carpenter, stand with Deputy Chief Paul Sandy, who started the patrol in 1994.


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