After getting reports of occasional fights near an East Lawrence park, two veteran police officers scanned the area one recent afternoon. Standard stuff, save for the machines they navigated.
Jeff Holtzman, a 16-year law enforcement veteran in his fourth year with the Lawrence Police Department, and Dan Ashley, who just passed his 10-year mark with the LPD, patrolled the area on TREK police mountain bikes as part of a revitalized bike patrol unit.
As sun spilled over the park, between the East Lawrence Recreation Center and a public housing complex in the 1600 block of Haskell, the officers chatted with a group of children playing a quick game of catch nearby.
“It makes you more approachable,” Ashley later said. “You’re more in-tune with what’s going on because you’re not enclosed in a car.”
This year, the department’s bike patrol unit is experiencing a revitalization, both in the equipment used and areas patrolled. In May, the department bought four 2013 TREK mountain bikes designed exclusively for police patrol from Lawrence’s Sunflower Outdoor & Bike Shop, bringing the department's total to eight bikes. Later, four Lawrence police officers certified through an international mountain bike association instructed 12 officers in specialized riding tactics and techniques, namely navigating difficult areas such as hills and stairs.
Begun in the mid 1990s, the department’s bike patrol deployed a select group of officers during certain times of the year to areas and neighborhoods where a marked police vehicle was not suitable. The department purchased four more mountain bikes in 2004 before the unit saw a decline in 2010 because of manpower shortfalls.
One month after this year’s revitalization of the program, the department’s bike patrol unit expanded its reach.
With typically two officers and, and on rare occasions, four, bike patrols were used on 38 shifts and responded to 275 calls from June 26 to Oct. 1, according to Sgt. Trent McKinley, a Lawrence Police Department spokesman. The officers conducted traffic stops, processed parking violations, executed arrest warrants and conducted drug investigations. Burglaries, theft and citizen outreach were also part of the job, McKinley said, and played a vital role during an enforcement campaign focusing on violence and alcohol-related problems in the Oread neighborhood and downtown.
Compared to cars, the bikes used are relatively cheap to buy and maintain, said Collin Earhart, manager of Sunflower Outdoor & Bike Shop. According to Earhart, the mountain bikes the department bought cost about $1,200 each. The four new bikes replaced four that had been used for 20 years, he said.
“And if they can get 20 years of service out of a $1,200 machine,” Earhart said, “that’s pretty cool.”
Earhart said the mountain bikes differ slightly, but not much, from standard TREK offerings. For one, the rear hub doesn’t click as the wheels rotate, allowing officers to approach a suspect quietly. The bikes' frames, meanwhile, carry a little more bulk for the times when they will inevitably be dropped to the ground before a foot chase.
On one evening in late August, four bike patrol officers set out on an initiative that spanned five hours. The officers issued 24 citations for alcohol violations and conducted three drug investigations involving methamphetamine, marijuana and prescription pills, in addition to other criminal offenses.
The patrol’s focus is no longer limited to the Oread Neighborhood and downtown. Other areas of focus have been the Redbud Neighborhood and Naismith Valley Park area, the South Iowa retail corridor and areas such as the park behind the East Lawrence Recreation Center, at which Holtzman and Ashley spent an afternoon last week.
The patrol unit, composed of volunteers within the department, has afforded officers like Holtzman and Ashley a greater element of surprise when enforcing offenses that occur on foot.
“It’s kind of a Catch-22,” Holtzman said. “You can be more visible and less visible at the same time.”