John Mulcahy knows he's doing his job because the can collector is complaining.
The collector scavenges cans and redeems them for nickel deposits. Mulcahy is a Southbridge policeman who patrols downtown on a bike. Since the officer has been spinning past Henry Street field a few times a night on his mountain bike, teen-agers have abandoned the boards along the fence as cover for illicit beer drinking. No more discarded empties for the can collector.
The kids could see a cruiser coming six blocks away, stash the beers in front of car tires and scatter, Mulcahy said. But on his 21-speed Miyata Elevation, he can ride right up to the fence silently and catch underage drinkers in the act.
That stealth factor, and the biker's ability to go where police cars can't, have helped Southbridge make a dent in drugstore shoplifting, cemetery vandalism and keg parties in the woods, said Mulcahy, in his third season as a bike officer. Over the handlebars, he can see in storefronts and cars better than he could from the driver's seat of a police car. Last year, he made the town's biggest marijuana bust when he pulled up behind the suspect's Jeep, which had the back window open, and smelled pot smoke.
Riding along with Mulcahy at the beginning of his 3-to-11 p.m. shift Wednesday felt more like a welcome-home parade than a crime-buster's foray. People out mowing their lawns or cooling off on their porches waved and said, "Hello, John." To Mulcahy's friendly "What's up," children of all ages and complexions responded with smiles and "Hi, Officer."
"Every kid in town knows him," said Nick Sotar of Sotar Bicycles on Central Street, who helped equip Mulcahy for the job and has gotten him into some mountain bike racing, too.
"The best part by far is the kids saying hi," said Mulcahy, 36, who knows many of the children from bike-safety and anti-drug programs the police have presented in the schools. Wednesday, he had spent his off-duty hours with other officers leading 42 kids, ages 5 to 14, on a five-mile bike trip to Sturbridge for a day of swimming, games and a picnic. He hopes he influences, by example, helmet use and adherence to traffic rules.
The job involves "a lot of p.r.," Mulcahy said, and the boost in public relations is valuable. An officer on a bike is more approachable than one in a car, and people seem glad for the police presence in their neighborhoods, he said.
Indeed, improved community relations is perhaps the biggest benefit of police on bikes, according to Dayton, Ohio, officer Alan Howard, chairman of the board of the International Police Mountain Bike Association. More than 850 officers belong to the association, which counts more than 1,000 police departments that use bikes.
Locally, Clinton and Townsend have added bike patrols this year. In Uxbridge, the rapport that bike officer James Barth has built with youngsters has produced tips in vandalism cases that led to arrests.
Mulcahy starts his work day with an equipment check at Sotar Bicycles and warms up with a five-mile loop downtown. After Henry Street field, he hops the curb at the state pool and circles the pool, joking with the kids in the water. He picks up speed passing the former American Optical Co. complex, points out the numerous bars where he'll make his presence known around closing time when he works the overnight shift, and goes off-road into the cemetery, bouncing expertly over gnarled tree roots in his path. Returning to Main Street, he watches from the sidewalk for troublemakers and chats with a teen-ager who comes out of the pizza shop where he works to ask about the Sturbridge picnic.
With about 21 pounds of gear -- including a 7-pound bulletproof
vest, a gun, strobe lights on a canvas rack trunk and a nightstick/flashlight
mounted on the top tube -- Mulcahy doesn't set any speed records. But he has
been known to cut through alleys and beat a cruiser to a call on Main Street.
The Massachusetts Highway Department announced this week it will build the 8.2-mile Polpis bike path being designed for Nantucket, a $3.2 million project that will connect other bike paths on the island.
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