The nature of policing in the winter is understandably insulated. The police car, like any car, creates a divide between the driver and the world around them.
So, in the spring and summer in south Minneapolis, some police utilize a more personable but no less serious mode of travel: The mountain bike.
Sheryl Kabat, the executive director of the Central Weed and Seed program, said that a cop on a bicycle creates a more personable mode of policing.
“People,” Kabat said, “like it for the additional connection. It’s a more approachable basis. You know, if you just think about in terms of if someone’s in a car, it’s pretty hard to walk up to them and say, ‘Hey how’s your day going?’ But when somebody’s on a horse or on a bike or walking up and down the street we have a tendency as human beings to stop and say, ‘Hey.’”
Jason Ohotto is a sergeant for the Minneapolis Park Police and the liaison to the Phillips Weed and Seed program. Years ago he rode the bike; today he rides a motorcycle.
“It’s easier to talk to people when you’re not in a squad car,” Ohotto said. “Just because of the physical barrier of being enclosed in a car, your contact is often more personable [when you’re outside the car].”
The Minneapolis Park Police have 48 sworn officers and 20 non-sworn officers in their department who police the parks. Sworn officers are allowed to handle firearms; non-sworn officers are not.
Brad Johnson is the chief of the park police. “We have agents who are bike certified and come summertime…we bring back a bunch of seasonal agents,” he said. “Obviously, when we increase our numbers of people we have less modes of transportation available, so when we get a big influx of people we’ll find other modes of transportation. We’ve got horses, we’ve got motorcycles, and we’ve got a fleet of about seven mountain bikes that we can put officers out on.”
Johnson said that while the bikes increase community interaction they also give the park police an advantage.
“You can see a squad car coming,” Johnson said, “and lots of times officers on bikes can sneak up on people that are breaking then law and doing things they’re not supposed to do.”
Both the park police and the Minneapolis Police Department use bike patrols, Ohotto said, but they operate in different ways. The police department has extensive bike patrols downtown and those officers also field 911 calls. Park police receive few 911 calls.
The main goal of the park police is to maintain safety for park users. “The bikes, they fit well with what we’re doing,” Ohotto said.
Johnson, who worked for the MPD for 25 years before moving to the park police, agreed.
“We go in and interact with the [park] staff and interact with the kids,” Johnson said. “So, there are some agents who come back in the summer and all they want to do is ride bikes because they enjoy [that aspect of policing].”
Jerry Diffenbach is a juvenile probation officer for Hennepin County. Last year at a town meeting held by Minneapolis City Councilmember Elizabeth Glidden, a probation supervisor suggested a bike patrol coordinated between the Hennepin County probation office and the Minneapolis Police Department.
Diffenbach was one of the probation officer tapped to work with the police on the project. Once a month they would get five or six probation officers with a police officer and bike through Phillips, Powderhorn and Central neighborhoods.
The group would patrol criminal hot spots, attempt to pick up people with outstanding warrants and check on home probations.
“We were quite evident [when we biked through the neighborhoods],” Diffenbach said. “People were sitting out in the day on their porches and they were cheering and yelling and saying, ‘We need more of this.’… So, yeah, it was very well received and there seemed to be a connection.”
The funding for the probation and police biking program came from the Phillips and Central Weed and Seed programs, which use federal funds for neighborhood crime prevention efforts, and the Powderhorn Park neighborhood association.
Still, there are disadvantages that come with bike patrol: you can’t bring someone in after an arrest on a bike, so officers must call for a patrol car after an arrest. And bike patrollers don’t have access to their computers.
“My expectation for these officers is that when they encounter a problem or crime they deal with it,” Ohotto said. “That’s their primary job, enforcing laws and making sure the public is as safe as can be.”
Kabat said that the relationship between the police and the Weed and Seed program has created a greater sense of community input with police decisions.
“Beyond the obvious reasons of increased safety people also like it because there’s just a greater presence,” Kabat said. “The same thing could be accomplished if we had more police officers but we don’t. So, increased funding means more shifts for police officers.”
Kabat said that the coordination between Weed and Seed and the police department has created a much more personal relationship between the community and the police. Phone numbers are shared, problem solving ideas are bounced off of one another, and the police are constant attendees of Weed and Seed monthly meetings.
“From a resident standpoint it offers a sense of ownership and attachment. It feels to them that their police officers are really invested in their neighborhood.”
Diffenbach agreed that the sense of collaboration was central to his patrolling last summer, and he is hopeful that their collaboration with the police can continue this year.
“The partnership that came out of this with the city council members, the police and probation officers, and the neighborhood organizations…that is really the most important component,” Diffenbach said.