Unlike most cops, Sgt. Michael Blair doesn’t have to put on pants when he heads to work each morning. He’s ready for action after he straps on a helmet and slips into a pair of bike shorts.
Blair oversees the Columbia Police Department’s year-old bike patrol – currently eight officers. Starting in about a month, more officers will be joining.
The target number is about 30 officers, Blair said. Police Chief Skip Holbrook said that expansion will happen over the next year and a half.
Blair said the patrol has proved to have several advantages.“We can get into the alleyways, the parks, places where patrol vehicles would not necessarily be able to get to,” he said. The patrol is concentrated on Columbia’s entertainment districts.
The officers aren’t full-time bicyclists – each cop has another job, and works bike duty whenever and wherever it’s assigned. David Travis Rodgers, for example, works gang investigations. He sees his bicycle as a tactical advantage.
“If we have a large event with multiple cars out in a parking lot, you can ease around where you’re not as visible and get out there and deter crime – auto break-ins, property crimes, stuff like that – kind of sneak up on them,” Rodgers said.
Keith Williamson is on the Community Response Team in the department’s North Region. He hopes to see the bikes help build relationships with citizens. “It makes us more approachable,” Williamson said. “Whenever you’re traveling down the roadway or in an apartment complex, you can approach people on the porch – or they might come up to you, because there’s not a window or barrier between you and them.”
Rodgers and Williamson have been part of the bike patrol since it started. The department had previously tried to launch a unit a few years back, but it didn’t take off, Blair said.
Officers have to submit a letter of interest in order to be considered for the bike patrol, Blair said. They also have to be in top physical form – bike duty usually involves three to five hours of riding around areas such as Five Points during events with large gatherings.
A majority of officers on the patrol right now are assigned to North Region for their day-to-day duties. With the expansion, Blair said, the goal is to have officers on the patrol from each of the five police regions that make up the city.
As more officers go through the required 40 hours of training, Holbrook said, the department will purchase bikes and equipment to outfit them. Funding is not an impediment, he said, and money for additional gear will be factored in to the upcoming budget.
Each bike, built by Cannondale Bicycle Corp. on a mountain bike platform, costs about $2,100 when it’s outfitted for police, Blair said. They’re specifically tailored for law enforcement, designed to be lightweight and durable. “It can take the abuse if we’ve got to jump off and chase behind somebody,” Blair said.
Though the sergeant takes his job seriously, he also takes time to enjoy the small perks that come with it – such as getting to dress down from time to time. “I like it,” he said of the shorts they wear when weather permits. “It’s a lot more comfortable than the regular uniform.”