Even their own dispatchers didn't take them seriously at first. The four police officers who patrol downtown Worcester on mountain bikes would be taking reports at a fender-bender and directing traffic, or busting up a disturbance, and the dispatcher would send a cruiser for back-up.
"We can do everything an officer in a cruiser can except transport somebody," said bike officer Chuck Jackson. "The dispatchers were slow to get this; they'd send cruisers when we don't need it."
Some people still giggle at the sight of cops wearing shorts. But since it began in November, the bike patrol has made friends among downtown merchants and has made more than 30 arrests. The bike police no longer are the Rodney Dangerfields of the force.
The Police Department plans to put four more officers on bikes, probably next month, and eight officers have applied for the jobs, according to Deputy Chief Charles Hannon. Webster Square is a likely area for the new patrol.
There are 735 bike patrols in the United States known to the International Police Mountain Biking Association, and the organization believes more than 1,000 exist, according to manager Jennifer Horan. Eight years ago, there were only a handful.
In Worcester, officers Jackson, Michael D. Hanlon, David P. Rutherford and Donna Lovejoy each bring more than 10 years of experience to the job. Pedaling instead of sitting in air-conditioned cars has given them a fresh perspective.
They cruise the streets, from the Worcester Centrum to the Peter Pan bus station, astride 21-speed Raleigh USA F500 Police Edition bikes, supplied by Fritz's Bicycle Shop and paid for by the Worcester Common Fashion Outlets.
Rutherford was on the midnight-to-8 shift before and said he was "getting burned out ... Now I look forward to coming to work." He's taken 3 inches off his waistline since starting the bike patrol.
Jackson, a longtime runner, had a desk job and "hated it." Hanlon was already a cyclist, commuting 3.5 miles from home to police headquarters on his own Schwinn hybrid. And Lovejoy, after seven knee operations, found biking a low-impact sport she could enjoy.
They say the bikes make them less intimidating, more approachable. People stop to talk to them and ask about their wheels. Small children are fascinated, and their parents introduce them to the nice officers. Business owners greet them daily and report goings-on that deserve attention but might not prompt them to phone the police.
"At night you always had to have that extra edge, that straight face. Now you can smile and carry on an amicable conversation," Rutherford said.
The police also hope their example -- wearing helmets, following traffic rules -- will be a good influence on other cyclists.
But the job isn't all public relations. For crime-fighting, the bikes offer an element of speed and stealth unavailable in a Ford. Bike officers frequently beat cruisers to a call, and "criminals are not expecting the police to show up on a bike," Rutherford said. "They don't realize you're a police officer until you're staring them in the face."
The bike patrol can take credit for keeping vagrants from loitering at the bus station and in the public library, shooing panhandlers from the Common and the Salem Street parking lot and breaking up groups of disruptive teen-agers in front of City Hall. There's more than enough of that type of work for the one policeman on foot downtown.
The bike officers switched to plainclothes to catch a pocketbook thief in the library, and solved a string of car break-ins by keeping watch from the second floor of Bancroft Motors. They've chased down shoplifters running from the mall and shepherded funeral processions through busy intersections.
Rutherford's only complaint about patrolling on two wheels, and this in spite of knobby tires and a Rock Shox front suspension: "You really notice how bad the city streets are."
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