NORMAN — Norman police officers wanting a stealthy approach have an usual tool in their arsenal — bicycles. Police on bikes have ridden up on drug deals and car burglars without being noticed. The Norman bicycle team has 15 members, including four female officers. Additionally, the team has two lieutenants and a commanding captain.
It didn’t start out that way.
“Apparently, the first bikes we got were from property custody,” said Lt. Jamie Shattuck, bike team member. “I think that Shon Elroy went to bike instructor school. He was our first instructor.”
Twenty years or so ago, two night shift police officers — Elroy and Harold Nicholson — were concerned about break-ins in downtown Norman. The pair did their research and became convinced that patrolling on bicycles could help.
“We had gotten interested in mountain biking and then we got interested in police patrolling on bikes,” said Sgt. Elroy who is the NPD range master.
“We met with a lot of resistance at first, but we proved ourselves,” Elroy said.
In 1992, the idea of modern police on bikes was new. Seattle is credited with the first modern bike squad in 1987. By 1992, the University of Oklahoma police did a lot of patrol work on bikes, but the idea of city police on bikes had not caught on.
Those first bike officers made a lot of arrests at games, especially at Lindsey Street and Jenkins Avenue and on Campus Corner. Mostly, it was trouble with drunks, Elroy said. Often troublemakers were told, “call a cab or you can go to jail.”
Elroy rode “a huge Cannondale” from property custody for a couple of years. At one time, Campus Corner donated a bike.
“Campus Corner really loved having the bike officers out there,” Elroy said.
Officers on bikes are much faster than foot patrol and have much greater mobility than cars. Additionally, they are quiet and can approach a suspect without being noticed.
Once, Elroy, in full police uniform, rode up to a bunch of kids who were planning a party.
“One of the kids hands me a flier for the party,” he said.
The kids were not happy when they realized he was a police officer. Elroy said he told them the police would make sure they partied safely.
Elroy said bikes also are an effective way to patrol mall parking lots during Christmas shopping season. Elroy served on the bike team for 11 years, and some days he still misses it.
“You could hear so much more,” he said. “You could see so much more.”
Bikes also encourage positive interactions with the public. Norman police officers have discovered they just look friendlier on bicycles — at least to kids who make that instant connection because they have bikes at home.
“We can get places regular patrol cars can’t get to and we’re a lot quieter,” said NPD bicycle team member Officer Rick Monson. “Plus we’re more approachable. People will come up and talk to us.”
Officer Tara Taylor has been a member of the bike team for six months and a Norman Police officer for two years. She had not been on a bike in years, but the opportunities the bike team provides inspired her to seek out the assignment.
Officers who want to join the bike squad must submit a letter of interest, make a 3.5 on the fitness test and shoot an 80 percent on the shooting test.
“On the bike, we’re more likely to be in shooting scenarios with a lot of people,” Monson said. “We’re not the pistol team, but we have to shoot better than the state average.”
Team members train in active shooter scenarios where someone might have a gun and is randomly shooting into a crowd or at people in a public setting. The bikes allow officers to maneuver through the crowd more easily than a car so that they can respond more quickly. Accurate shooting is key in a crowd setting.
The bike squad works many large public events such as OU home football games, Fourth of July at Reaves Park, Fall Festival, Medieval Fair, Jazz in June and parades.
“It’s also preventative. People see us there and won’t commit the crime,” Monson said.
“It’s a visual deterrent,” Taylor said.
Being selected is only the first portion of the process. Officers have to train to be on the bike team and training can be rigorous.
“You do a lot of things on the bike I didn’t think was possible,” Monson said.
Master Police Officer Jeff Casillas is the bike team mechanic. He attended a week-long school in Louisiana to learn bike maintenance. Officers are supposed to do minor maintenance like changing tires on their own, but Casillas does the more complicated repairs. Lt. Brent Barbour is the other bike maintenance officer on the team.
Bike team members were the first on the scene when an apparently disturbed young man had explosives blow up in his backpack while sitting on a bench just outside the stadium during a home football day on Oct. 1, 2005.
Those officers assisted in establishing a perimeter and looking for other potential suspects.
“It gives us an opportunity to get out and interact with the public in ways we normally wouldn’t get to,” Shattuck said. “We have a lot of camaraderie within our team. We enjoy spending time together.”
Barbour has been on the team for close to nine years.
“Our bike team can use their bikes on patrol,” Shattuck said. “They’ll get out during their patrol time if they’re not taking calls, and they’ll patrol schools and apartment complexes or anywhere we have high crime areas.”
It’s not uncommon for bike team members catch criminals red-handed.
“People who are participating in criminal activities don’t recognize us until we’re right there,” Barbour said. “You can hear things, you can smell things, you can locate a lot more stuff on a bike than you can on a car.”