Bike Cops On A Roll -- They Laughed When Seattle Cops Donned Shorts And Mounted Bicycles. No More. After A Decade, The City's Pioneer Pedal Patrol Is The Model For 3,000 Other Departments - And The Bad Guys Still Think It's Unfair.

In the beginning, people laughed.

And why not? What could be funnier than a big burly cop, in shorts, on a skinny little bicycle?

How could a bicyclist chase down crooks? Where do you put the flashing lights and siren? The coffee and doughnuts?

That was 10 years ago, when Seattle became the nation's first modern police department to put officers on regular mountain-bike patrols.

No one's laughing now. Not Seattle residents, who have seen bicycle officers become a fixture of the cityscape. Not the 3,000 other law-enforcement departments all over the country that have followed Seattle's lead.

And certainly not the untold thousands of felons who have been arrested by officers approaching on versatile, silent mountain bikes.

"We knew we were on the right track when we heard criminals complain that the bikes gave us an unfair advantage," said Assistant Police Chief Jim Deschane, who authorized the bicycle patrols as an experiment starting July 10, 1987.

Drug dealers, in particular, have seemed stunned, some freezing in mid-transaction when a cop zooms up on a bicycle, said Sgt. Paul Grady, one of the city's first two bike-patrol officers.

"We have made literally hundreds and hundreds of narcotics arrests," said Grady. "Ten years into this, we can still ride right up and take drugs out of people's hands."

But busting dope peddlers, says Grady, isn't as important as the way bicycles strengthen the connection between the cop and the community.

"People come up to us who would never think of approaching two officers in a patrol car," said Grady. Sometimes it's to ask directions, or inquire about the bike, or share an observation about the neighborhood.

Grady is not just Seattle's resident expert on bicycle patrols, he's written a book, "Policing by Mountain Bike," and has traveled to 42 states and five other countries to help other departments start bicycle units.

Law-enforcement agencies were as skeptical as everyone else when Seattle's bike cops first took to the streets, but that skepticism turned to curiosity, then enthusiasm.

Grady remembers the transition: "In '87, everybody laughed. In '88, they sort of raised their eyebrows and noticed we were still doing it. In '89, other departments started contacting us to help them start and, in '90, it just took off by the hundreds of departments."

Of all the places for bicycle cops to emerge as a law-enforcement tool, how did it happen in hilly, rainy Seattle?

If you were here in the summer of 1987, you may remember the way downtown looked. Comparisons to a war zone were frequent.

The bus-tunnel excavation ripped up Third Avenue, carving downtown in half. Several skyscraper jobs, as well, turned the city core into a maze of craters, closures, detours, cranes, jackhammers and chain-link fences.

"It was taking far too long for officers in cars to get even a few blocks for a call," remembers Deschane, then a patrol captain in the West Precinct, which includes downtown.

Deschane asked his officers to help come up with some other type of transportation, and he wondered whether mopeds or small motor scooters might be the answer.

Grady and another officer, Mike Miller, proposed riding their own mountain bikes on the job, noting that bikes are quick, quiet, can travel on any kind of terrain and can get in and out of traffic.

Deschane wondered about the vulnerability of police officers on bicycles, but Grady and Miller were so enthusiastic, he allowed them to try it.

Within 30 minutes of leaving headquarters, Grady and Miller had made three felony drug arrests, jumping a curb and zipping into bushes under the viaduct to interrupt a drug sale.

There was one slight hitch. Since this was just a test, Deschane hadn't told his superiors about it. And it wasn't long before the first reporter called to find out about the bicycle officers he saw on the street.

Quickly, the bike cops were big news, and not just in Seattle. Time magazine, People, the Christian Science Monitor and a bicycling magazine from England did articles on the bike patrol. "Crime fighters put their mettle to the pedal," People punned.

About then, Deschane noticed something unusual. "In police work, whatever you do seems to draw as many detractors as supporters. But the reaction to this was 100 percent positive."

Well, almost.

In one incident that first summer, Officer Maurine Stitch rode up to a man breaking into a car. He glanced at her and went right back to his business, apparently not believing the cyclist could really be a cop. "That's not fair," he complained as he was arrested.

The scariest moment for bike cops came in October 1989 when officers Deborah Brooks and Katy Hernan approached a 53-year-old transient drinking in Pioneer Square.

As Hernan wrote a citation, the man whirled away, pulled out a .22-caliber semiautomatic pistol and fired two shots. Brooks was struck in the leg, Hernan was grazed by bullet fragments and the man was about to fire again when his gun jammed.

Over the years, there have also been a few collisions between the bikes and cars, an assortment of bruises and a few broken bones, but no fatalities.

The bike cop's equipment, often donated by manufacturers, continues to improve. The newest bikes, 24-speeds, are stronger, sturdier and equipped with shock absorbers to help take the punishment of jumping curbs and riding down stairs.

Specialized gear has been developed, such as a lightweight gun belt and thin gloves that are warm but flexible enough to pull a trigger.

Seattle now has nearly 100 bicycle-patrol officers and a waiting list within the department of others wanting to join.

And from the glittery Las Vegas strip to the grimy alleys of Manhattan to the frosty sidewalks of Ketchikan, bicycle cops are commonplace, and bicycling magazines point to Seattle as the pioneer.

"We weren't really trying to be revolutionary," said Deschane. "We were just trying to do a better job."

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