By Joe Beck - firstname.lastname@example.org
Woodstock police straddled their bikes and pedaled through the streets Friday for the first time as part of their regular duties.
Four of the six members of the bike patrol spoke enthusiastically about the advantages they believe bicycles bring to their jobs moments before they headed out on their first shift.
Bicycles give police greater visibility and make them more accessible to citizens than squad car patrols, said officer Mike Hottle.
"It removes the wall" squad cars represent to citizens, Hottle said. "Now they can put a face with an officer, especially since we have had a whole new group of officers in the last few years."
"It removes the barrier of the police vehicle," said Sgt. Aaron Pattie. "It makes us more approachable to the general public."
Chief Eric Reiley credits Pattie with providing the impetus for the project over the last year.
Reiley said his department has been trying for several years to launch a bicycle patrol but was stymied by a lack of money. That changed last year as a result of a case of fraud involving illegal sales of cigarettes and credit cards. The case produced a sum of money available for seizure by police under forfeiture laws.
The forfeiture money was used to pay for bicycle and police uniforms needed for the patrol officers, Reiley said, thus making it possible to start the program at no cost to the town or department.
Reiley said his department studied similar patrols mounted by other police agencies in the area such as in Winchester, Front Royal, New Market and Harrisonburg.
"A lot of research, a lot of work went into preparing for this," Reiley said.
Members of the patrol, all of whom volunteered for it, attended a weeklong training program conducted by the state Department of Justice.
Several of the officers said they joined for the health benefits, specifically for the opportunity to lose weight and keep it off.
"It gets you out of the car, and it's a great way to stay in shape," officer John Fox said.
"It's really a healthy initiative, but it's also a cost saving initiative for the department and the town," Hottle said, citing the amount of gas and wear and tear saved on cars that average about 40 miles a shift.
The bicycles are intended as a supplement, not a replacement for squad cars, Reiley said.
Pattie said squad cars will be equipped with bicycle racks that allow patrolling officers to mount or discontinue bike patrols according to varying situations they encounter.
Each shift will continue to have at least one squad car on duty ready to answer radio calls from bicycling officers when they need to transport a prisoner or equipment that cannot be carried on two wheels.
"We're still going to be in the cars, except for special events and enforcement activities," Hottle said.