The use of bicycles by the police has a long and proud history. For as long as villains have been using bikes to do a runner, the dibble have been using bikes to catch them!
Of course, bikes have other advantages. Back in the day there was little alternative – you may have had a horse, but more likely you were pounding the beat the old fashioned way, putting one foot in front of another, and bicycle was far better than that! Cost effective, silent, visible enough that the public could see you, covert enough that you could sneak up on bad boys, fast enough to cover meaningful distances, slow enough to see what’s going on, and can go where the few motor vehicles of the time had no hope of venturing. Of course, the environmental impact is minimal, making cycle patrol more relevant today than ever.
Back in the late nineteenth century officers started using their bicycles to get them around the manor, particularly on rural beats. In most cases these officers would have simply used their own bicycle, although there is a long and proud tradition of the police taking unclaimed bikes from the found property store and pressing them into service as police vehicles.
One of the earliest known instances of a police force acquiring its own bicycles was in 1896 when the Kent Constabulary purchased 20 bicycles for their officers to use. This sounds dandy, but one must remember that it was common practice right up until the 1970’s for police forces to charge officers for their bicycle, and the deduct a little money from each pay packet until the account was settled. Imagine having to pay for your own patrol car today, and you can sense how mightily aggrieved the bobbies must have felt about that.
By 1904 the records show that Kent had 29 bicycle in use, almost certainly among more rural based officers, and this pattern was rapidly repeated all around the county. This remained largely unchanged until the post war years, when motorcycles started to gain a foothold. The 2 stroke and partially faired Vecolcette LE “Noddy Bike” started to edge its way in, but luckier officers might have had access to a big BSA thumper, or even a Triumph twin, depending on how much dirt they happened to have on their senior officers. While motorcycles did edge into the bicycles territory a little, their spread was fairly limited, and the pedal cycle remained supreme. Things only really started to change from the latter part of the 1950’s and into the Sixties when patrol cars were introduced and over the next few years started to become ubiquitous.
By the Seventies the patrol car, panda car, squad car, area car, – call it what you will – began to reign supreme, and although cycle patrol remained common its days were decidedly numbered. By the Eighties the police car really did rule the roost, and cycle patrol became almost extinct, surviving only in the hands of a few long-serving “fossils”. And that was pretty much the end of that.
At least, it was, until patrol cycling as a tactical tool and specialism started to a gain foothold in the United States. American law enforcement took the matter very seriously, and IPMBA (the American Police Mountain Bike Association) created the World’s effective syllabus for law enforcement patrol cycle training. And very good it was too.
This prompted renewed interest in the UK, and here and there the odd and usually very isolated bobby in the UK started applying these principles over here. They would scrounge funding, beg and borrow equipment, and even resort to the age old practice of acquiring bikes from the found property store. Things went well, and the individual teams began to grow in stature and number. It is fair to say that it was not all plain sailing and many senior officers, some of who controlled the budgets, failed to see the many advantages that cycle patrol could bring. Three things happened in quick succession which forced UK police forces to start placing their cycling projects on a more professional footing.
A postman fell off his bike, badly breaking his leg.
A PCSO in one of the Northern forces lost his life when he rode up the inside of a large lorry, which then turned left and ran him over.
A female PC in one of the English forces suffered career-ending spinal injuries when the seat post of her bike suddenly collapsed back into the frame.
All 3 incidents happened in a fairly short space of time, but it was our poor postie that really set the cat among the pigeons. He took his employer to Court, on the basis that they had sent him on his way on a bike with no training, no safety inspection, no records that the machine had been properly maintained, and it was therefore his employers fault that he was injured. The Court agreed, and awarded the postie several hundred thousand pounds in damages. The Court also ruled that PUWER applied to bicycles in use at work – the Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations says, in very simplified terms, that any piece of work equipment capable of causing death or serious injury must be properly maintained, records of the maintenance kept, and operators trained in the safe use of this equipment. The Court had now put cycling at work up there with operating dangerous machinery – if you ride a bike at or for your work, the provisions of PUWER apply – you must be trained how to ride safely, and the organisation must ensure the machine is properly maintained and records kept of this. Full stop. Period. No ifs, buts, excuses or exceptions – it’s the law!
This finally forced the police forces to act. To suddenly withdraw bicycle patrol now would leave hundreds of bobbies with no daily transport, and the forces without the means to buy dozens more cars each. A few forces simply shut down all cycling entirely, but most saw sense and appointed a Principle Force Cyclist, who was responsible for arranging maintenance, keeping records, and either delivering or arranging training.
Some forces turned to IPMBA, and after tweaking the syllabus a little (the bits about using firearms while mounted astride a bicycle were not terribly relevant over here) were soon producing fleets of highly trained, professional and motivated staff. Very motivated indeed – officers on cycle patrol units have the lowest sickness rate of any other police department in the UK. Meanwhile, a UK based training organisation called MIAS was already delivering standard MTB training, and quickly developed their own Emergency Services course. This was the one adopted by most UK forces, and MIAS quickly developed further ‘add-on’ courses in addition to the basic cycle patrol qualification.
First aid, bike specific unarmed defensive tactics, accredited patrol cycle maintenance, advance road skills, and Search and Rescue are all courses that MIAS teach, and which I am extremely proud and fortunate enough to be qualified to deliver.
And yes – I can ride down a flight of steps.
Until next time,