THE driver of the stolen car probably didn't have time to realize what happened. Sandwiched anonymously in gridlock traffic in downtown Seattle - no police vehicles in sight - he probably felt safe.
What the thief didn't know about was the city's police bicycle squad. Alerted to the whereabouts of the hot car, four officers began pedaling, swiftly threading their way through the bumper-to-bumper snarl to apprehend the unsuspecting driver. In a few minutes the bike squad had accomplished what would have been impossible for a patrol car.
``In a patrol car, when you get a call, whatever it is has already happened by the time you get there,'' says officer Paul Grady, a fit and enthusiastic member of the bicycle squad.
Not so on bikes. Since the program began last summer, Seattle's downtown precinct has seen some impressive results of the first urban police bicycle squad in the United States. The six officers on wheels are part of a 10-member foot-beat patrol called the Adam Squad.
In their first month, the bike unit (originally only two men) enthusiastically made 500 misdemeanor arrests - five times the average number for foot patrols. The figures have dropped somewhat since then, but they still average about 250 arrests per month.
One of their greatest advantages is speed, something this writer experienced firsthand.
``Where should we wait for you?'' the patrolman asked Mr. Grady. The officer was kindly chauffeuring me by car to Pike Place Market, to rendezvous with Grady and the other cycling cops.
``Aw, we'll beat you there,'' Grady said.
Sure enough, five minutes later we arrived at the famous open-air market 10 blocks away, and there was Grady, calmly waiting atop his aluminum steed - an 18-speed mountain bike.
Two enthusiasts start the squad
The formation of the bike squad was due largely to the impetus and enthusiasm of officer Grady and Mike Miller, two friends who had joined the Seattle police four years ago, after working for the Portland, Ore., city police for a number of years. They were convinced that an all-bike squad would be the perfect way to combat some types of crime in downtown Seattle. In fact, they were persuasive enough that their superiors decided to let them give it a go.
Their first bikes, borrowed from friends, lasted about six weeks, finally failing from rough wear and tear. Then Grady and officer Miller persuaded the Raleigh Cycle Company in Kent, Wash., to donate two top-of-the-line, all-terrain (or mountain) bikes to the squad. Since then, four more bikes have been added. In November, Miller was promoted to the traffic division, where he rides an even bigger ``bike'' - a motorcycle. Besides Grady, the cycling team currently includes officers Michele Calley, John Quaale, Pete Rossen, and Doug Wilburn; an open sixth position is expected to be filled soon.
The bike squad officers are ``pro active,'' meaning they take no calls; instead they are constantly on the lookout for problems. Many of their arrests have been surprised drug traffickers, who are easily spotted and apprehended by the quiet, quick two-wheelers, sometimes unaware that the dope is taken right out of their hands by the officers.
``It's so different on a bike; you are so close to what's happening, you can hear, see, and smell the crime taking place,'' says Grady.
Like many cities, downtown Seattle is a checkerboard of one-way streets, annoying for drivers and practically debilitating for police in patrol cars.
To make matters worse, the heart of downtown has been torn up during the construction of an underground bus tunnel. Patrol cars incur detours of five or six extra blocks and a loss of precious time. The project has wreaked considerable havoc on downtown traffic as well.
This is where the bike squad really has the advantage. What might take five minutes and 12 blocks in a car takes seconds for these pedaling police officers. Their rugged bikes, with about a two-year life span, have puncture-proof tires tough enough to take any debris, rocks, or glass the streets might dish out, yet the cycles are agile enough to move between cars and turn around in a second; sometimes going where four wheels fear (or are unable) to tread.
The squad works in pairs and only during the day. When apprehending a suspect or drawing a gun, officers must dismount. A patrol car is called after the arrest to take the accused to the station house.
Besides catching hapless criminals caught in traffic jams, they have also prevented a rape in a park that was inaccessible to cars and too distant for foot patrol officers.
Drug-plagued areas patrolled
Capt. Jim Deschane, commander of Seattle's west precinct (which includes the Adam squad), says the bike unit's biggest assets are mobility and accessibility. In addition, the squad has made some inroads into cleaning up areas once frequented only by junkies and vagrants.
``Because they can easily check on trouble spots five times a day, they can control the unwanted congregation of dope dealers and such,'' Captain Deschane says. And they have.
``Downtown and waterfront merchants have repeatedly told us how much of a difference we have made,'' says Grady. ``It really makes me feel good when families and tourists are now using the park near Pike Place, which used to be so full of junkies that it was considered a dangerous place to go. That's changed.''
The officers themselves like getting paid to stay in shape - some even say they couldn't go back to a patrol car anymore. It does something for morale, too. The officers are frequently stopped by picture-taking tourists and interested pedestrians.
``It's great,'' says Grady. ``Old ladies to eight-year-olds come up and talk to you. People who would otherwise never approach a police officer come up and ask about the bikes.''
``Police officers usually are dealing with the offender population, and can easily lose sight of the fact that the majority of people aren't criminals,'' says Deschane. ``It does a lot for my officers to see a positive public response.''
One problem was proper clothing. Since standard police uniforms were not meant for bike riding, some changes had to be made so that the bike squad could ride comfortably and still look professional. For the summer they had to shed the unbearably hot bulletproof vests; since they already have heavy gear (gun, gun belt, and radio), lightness was important. The rank-and-file duds were replaced by short-sleeve shirts and cycling shorts, accompanied by much derision from their co-workers at the station house: ``Look at those legs!'' and so on.
For the rest of the year, the uniform consists of polypropylene turtlenecks, yellow Gortex jackets (complete with insignia), and navy windbreaker pants that can be zipped up into a fist-size bag when the temperature climbs. Bike fenders were installed for the rainy season.
Last winter brought few mishaps, except for a few broken chains and flat tires. Deschane says there were surprisingly few days when the officers didn't ride. ``Even I wouldn't have gone out on the bikes on some of those nastier days. But these guys are pretty enthusiastic, and they seem to know their limits.'' On really bad days, or in icy or snowy conditions, the cyclists are put on foot patrol.
Bicycling bobbies are apparently here to stay. Not just a local novelty, the program has attracted the interest of many police departments in other states. Edmonds, a city about 25 miles north of Seattle, has since started a similar program. Two other Seattle precincts now have bicycle squads.
``As long as enthusiasm stays high and injuries stay low, the bikes should remain a part of our program,'' says Deschane.
Or, in the words of one onlooker to Paul Grady, ``We like police on horses, but we like bikes better ... they don't leave a mess.''