Thoughts on Oakland Police Bike Patrols

Oakland police patrolling in downtown on bikes. Photo: Oakland Police Department
Oakland police patrolling in downtown on bikes. Photo: Oakland Police Department

The other day, I biked over to a market on Oak Street in Jack London Square. There was a truck driver parked in the bike lane in front of the store, right by an open parking spot. I ended up walking into the store at the same time as an Oakland police officer. So I mentioned the truck outside and asked the officer if he would please cite the driver.

The cop said it wasn’t his territory. “So you can’t take out your book and write a ticket unless it’s in ‘your territory?'” I asked. Then he said it’s a parking enforcement matter, not a police issue. I pointed out that it’s not ‘parking enforcement’ because the truck was blocking a travel lane. Finally, the cop just said he’s “too busy stopping robberies and murders” to write a citation for a traffic violation.

Anyway, the line in the market was too long, so I turned around to leave. Then I noticed the police officer’s patrol car in the parking lot (see photo below).

It's going to be hard to break the 'windshield perspective' if officer drive their bikes around too much. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick
It’s going to be hard to break the ‘windshield perspective’ if officers drive their bikes around instead of riding them. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick

I hope the irony is not lost on Streetsblog readers.

In case there’s any doubt, Dave Campbell, Advocacy Director for Bike East Bay, confirmed that the police officer was wrong–it’s not a parking issue if a truck is parked in a bike lane, blocking the flow of vehicles, including human-powered ones.

The hope of bike advocates is that the more we can get cops out walking and biking, the more we can counteract that “windshield perspective” that has law enforcement officers reflexively siding with motorists and failing to protect vulnerable road users. But, of course, that won’t work if cops just drive their bikes around town on the back of an SUV.

According to Oakland PD (OPD) spokeswoman Johnna Watson, the department currently has roughly 100 bikes (there are over 700 officers working for OPD). The department doesn’t have officers specifically assigned to patrol by bike. “If you’re in a special unit, or walking, they all have the ability to say ‘you know what, today I’m going to ride the bike’ so it gives the department options,” explained Watson, who used to ride a bike on patrol herself. She added that riding a bike helps officers cover more territory and are important “…when we want to do special events, or crowd control, marches; then there’s a huge bicycle contingent.”

OPD’s informal approach to bike patrols probably has roots in their beginnings–they were started by some officers on foot patrol who wanted to use bikes occasionally. Wendy Rae, a retired OPD officer, was part of those first efforts some twenty years ago. “I started [foot patrol] in the downtown business district–we all had little districts,” she told Streetsblog in a phone interview. Occasionally calls would go out and officers on foot would rush over to support others in nearby districts. She recalled that a sergeant in the walking units thought they would be better at supporting each other if they could zoom into another district on a bike. They started fixing up impounded bikes and using them for foot patrols.

“We had uniforms that we cut up and made into shorts,” she recalled, explaining that it was all kind of ad hoc. But over time things got more formalized. “Officers started taking Police Officer Standards and Training (POST) courses in bicycling.” Pretty soon ten or fifteen officers had taken the course, and the department got funding for over 100 formal “police bikes,” which include racks to hold police accessories (some even have red and blue flashing lights).

Now, “approximately 110 officers are trained,” said Watson. But it’s unclear how many officers are out on bikes on a typical day.

So why did the cop in the supermarket have his bike on the back of his car?

“If an officer has time, they might bring the bicycle to do some patrolling–maybe they can utilize the bike for half the day,” said Rae. “That’s why you see it on the back of a car.”

Watson added that the patrol cars act as a rolling office, and officers want their gear close by. And if the officer makes an arrest, they can transport the person back to the station rather than having to call another officer to come pick them up.

Rae pointed out that in years past OPD used to have officers assigned to that task–they would drive around and pick up foot-beat officers and the people they arrested. And the computer/rolling-office thing seems to be about habit, not technology–with today’s miniaturization, it seems hard to believe the department can’t find secure tablets and small laptops that can be stowed on a bike. As Chip Johnson pointed out in a column in the SF Chronicle a couple of years back, bike patrols can go a long way towards improving community policing–and thereby directly reducing crime. He added that “the cost of maintaining a fleet of bicycles doesn’t amount to a hill of beans compared with the millions of dollars spent maintaining and upgrading the city’s fleet of police cars, or paying for the gasoline it costs to power them.” But there’s not much savings if every officer on a bike also has an SUV parked somewhere nearby.

Rae said that she didn’t always drive her bike to her beat; sometimes she biked all the way up the hill from her station to Piedmont Avenue. “There are things that inhibit the use of a bike, such as staffing or the weather.” Then again, the weather issue is all about equipment, clothes, and training. Plenty of cops ride bikes in cities with much worse weather than the Bay Area gets–not to mention that plenty of us civilians ride in downpours. If weather is really an issue, OPD could invest in fenders, ponchos, and grit. And Bike East Bay has some all-weather cycling classes.

These DC police also probably don't like riding in bad weather. Photo: ITV.
These DC police also probably don’t like riding in bad weather. Photo: ITV.

Either way, Rae said the bike was an invaluable tool in fighting crime. “Back in the day, when we had a lot of drug activity in the downtown and other areas, we were able to swoop in” on bikes to make arrests, she said. And when she was part of chasing down a fleeing suspect, “we could utilize an alley or a one-way street to access somewhere quicker, and apprehend someone quicker; that works really well in downtown.” San Francisco and other cities have also found that bike patrols help cops stop crimes from happening. Just ask Sergeant Martin of the SFPD’s Ingleside station. Or, as one officer put it, when it comes to bike patrols, “the criminals hate it.”

On a bike, said Rae, “you’re definitely closer to the public,” adding that patrol cars put distance and create intimidation between the police and the public. “On a bike you’re able to interact. Shop owners even said I could leave my bike in their facility if I needed to. I had a very fortunate career, I met a lot of people, I liked a lot of people, and they liked me. A bike helps break barriers.”

And what about the officer in the grocery store who contends that clearing bike lanes isn’t his responsibility? Rae said she cited motorists for creating unsafe conditions. “We did as much as we could. If you saw something like that, and you weren’t enroute to a call, you would enforce anything that would hamper a bicycle or a pedestrian… I’ve pulled vehicles over on my bicycle. It’s a lot easier and I was able to stop them and issue a ticket.”

She recalled one time a motorist tried to flee when she tried to pull him over, but in that case some fellow police stopped the car down the road. “Radios do come in handy when you’re on a bicycle for sure.”

Watson and Rae on patrol with an Oakland civilian. Photo: Oakland PD
Watson and Rae on patrol with an Oakland civilian. Photo: Oakland PD


  • Prinzrob

    Great piece thanks Roger, I learned a lot even after having lived and worked in Oakland for so long!

    I’ll add that in order to end the windshield perspective we need to get officers on bikes out of uniform as well. This way they experience what it’s really like to bike in Oakland, with all the challenges and antagonism bike riders face.

    However, Oakland has one of the lowest rates of officers who live in the city (around 10%) of any PD in the country. This not only creates an additional disconnect between the police and the citizenry, but it also makes it much less likely for officers to commute by bike/walk/transit and experience the city from this perspective (not to mention added cost and lose effeciency associated with longer commutes).

    This officer live/work ratio is a challenge Oakland has yet to take on significantly.

  • Eric Johnson

    only time cops get out of their cars is to get something at a store or coffee house

  • Jeffrey Baker

    Both Oakland and Berkeley PD have a very hard time recruiting. Perhaps recruiting specifically for bike patrols would help them find some officers who aren’t psychos.

  • Jeffrey Baker

    That’s a pretty interesting table, but I wonder how much of that is due to geography. An officer of the Laredo police has nowhere else to live. It doesn’t really bother me that an Oakland police officer might live in Berkeley, Richmond, or San Leandro.

  • Prinzrob

    More OPD officers live in San Joaquin County than live in Oakland. They’re not nearby, and it’s a problem that costs the city a lot of money while also reducing the police efficiency and effectiveness:

    Some say this is because Oakland is expensive, which is true but OPD officers get paid a lot of money, some of the highest salaries of any city employees. And yet much of those salaries get siphoned out of Oakland because of this disparity, and paid as property or sales taxes in the cities where officers live. It’s a lose-lose-lose scenario for Oakland.

  • Corvus Corax

    And if the officer makes an arrest, they can transport the person back
    to the station rather than having to call another officer to come pick
    them up.

    Dang! These OPD apologists will say anything to bolster any outlandish claim and expect us to swallow it!

    Let’s say a bike officer arrests a perp every 5 days: that’s 4 days that no vehicle needs to be used and one time a car needs to be called and used, vs the 5 days that they carry their bike on their vehicle rather than just biking from the station.

    Really, Johnna? Did you think this through?

  • Vooch

    Question – how did Police arrest and hold criminals before they had patrol cars ?

  • Corvus Corax

    Yes, excellent question. I see many comments where people say they have to have a car because they have a family. And I always think that it’s such a good thing that cars were invented so people could start having families.

  • Corvus Corax

    More on this: I believe that the police in cities no longer think they are a part of the community, rather they feel that they are a military force. As a result they are opposed to walking or biking a beat, and only want to sit in a car, with all its comforts, unless it’s to be part of a patrol team and storm a building somewhere.

    And given that so many OPD officers live so far away, they are indeed not part of the community they serve. I don’t see a realistic solution.

  • Vooch

    As on the 8th day, God made cars.

  • Corvus Corax

    And he saw that they were good.

  • Jeffrey Baker

    I know it’s a big territory, but that graph still says that 2/3rds of them live in Alameda or Contra Costa counties. I work in Sunnyvale and I don’t have the impression that a supermajority of my co-workers live in Santa Clara and one adjoining county. In fact, I’m quite sure that the supermajority of them work at least one county removed. Given the housing and transportation problems we face I hesitate to throw stones, even at groups that richly deserve it, like the cops.

  • Cynthia Morse

    Just wondering–when the cop said he was ” too busy stopping robberies and murders,” what level of serious was he? Brushing off a clueless civilian? Just plain old sarcasm? Being concerned and serious? Being on a bicycle is community policing, concerned with prevention and knowing how to accomplish it. If he used bicycle lanes he’d very probably be interested in ticketing a truck blocking one, so I doubt he uses that bicycle much. Or does much crime prevention, as opposed to keeping busy with hassling likely suspects of something he’ll think of later.

  • Cynthia Morse

    That’s reasonable, but the most serious psycho on BPD was on a bike a few years ago, and carrying a knife in his boots (and flashing it)–plus building a deserved reputation for being belligerent and rough with anyone displeasing him. He’s still on a bike–I don’t know if he’s not trusted with a patrol car or prefers to use his well-practiced bullying.

  • Cynthia Morse

    The loss of taxes due to Oakland’s police living far away isn’t the really serious problem. It’s the estrangement and real dislike of the city that they develop comparing their homes an neighborhoods with so much of Oakland. With that comes distancing and misunderstanding of its citizens–especially black and brown. This is a really serious problem and impacts young black men especially–they are so quickly assumed to be problems. In Oakland, of all places, the police should share the city with the people they deal with–all of them.

  • jd_x

    This comment quoted above seems silly: even if the officer drove their bike and then went out on patrol on their bike, presumably they could be 4 or 5 blocks away from their SUV when they make an arrest. And then what, they walk the suspect back 5 blocks their SUV in handcuffs? It’s a lowsy excuse because even if they drive out to patrol in bike, they odds seem low that even then they’ll be close enough to their car if they need access to it in an emergency. They will have to call another officer no matter what, and this excuse is nothing but that: another excuse as to why OPD can’t break their windshield perspective.

  • Corvus Corax

    Good points. I think we are in perfect agreement that the quote is pure BS.

    But now I am wondering if they have convinced themselves that this is so, or are they aware of how ridiculous this sounds and are just hoping no one notices its logical deficiencies.

  • Jeffrey Baker

    That’s pretty crazy. The proportion of police who are insane roid-raging nazis is a real problem.

  • Cynthia Morse

    Good reference to steroids–it’s so obviously a problem but OPD turned down regular drug testing years ago (they have to agree to it–it’s their choice, not the city’s.) I met a retired OFD a while back who told me that the Fire Dept has regular drug testing of all personnel–the PD only tests when an officer is involved in a serious incident. Don’t know the criteria for serious.

  • neroden

    Shut it down. Is Oakland legally required to have a police department, or can the city just dissolve it? If they’ve decided to have cops on drugs *and* they have a record of murderous, violent cops, seems best to just shut it down.

  • neroden

    It’s a pity the name and/or badge number of the dishonest, irresponsible cop wasn’t released. It’s past time to expose the “bad apples”.

  • mcas

    Folks: You’re missing the bigger question here: Motorcycle patrols also can’t transport arrests, but that hasn’t stopped agencies from using them. They just call a squad car when transport is needed.

  • davistrain

    Regarding the use of radios by bicycle-riding officers: Reminds me of the fellow who was bragging about his new exotic sports car. A cop was admiring it, and the owner said, “Not that I’d ever try it, but this roadster can outrun any patrol car.” And the cop said, “Oh, I don’t doubt that a bit, but it can’t outrun radio signals.”

  • davistrain

    In Los Angeles County, several cities contract with the Sheriff’s Dept. to provide police services. This has both advantages and drawbacks, but we’ve had “contract cities” in this county for over 50 years now, and I think we have had some Southern Calif. cities disband their city police departments and have the Sheriff’s deputies enforcing the laws.

  • Nathan Hyatt

    “There was a truck driver parked in the bike lane in front of the store, right by an open parking spot. I ended up walking into the store at the same time as an Oakland police officer. So I mentioned the truck outside and asked the officer if he would please cite the driver.”

    Roger Rudick, I’m calling you a dick: “You are a dick.”

  • Prinzrob

    Agree 100%. I mostly brought up the tax revenue argument for folks who might not appreciate the value of community policing but do care about the city budget.

    Ironically, OPD’s targeting of black/brown men and the resulting arrest records means that many people who grew up here are ineligible for the police academy. It’s a self-perpetuating mess.

  • Cynthia Morse

    His name is Mathis. I took him to the Civilian Police Review Board (he injured me) and he lied, and he laughed while I was testifying, and nobody said a word. My complaint was turned down.

    I found out later that the process followed was that he and the PD Association lawyer waited to hear all witnesses stories (recorded) before Mathis figured out what he was going to say. So he picked something out of the recordings that was a mistake by someone who didn’t have a good view. But Mathis had a good view–he was dragging me across the street by the wrist.

    Everyone in that department covers for everyone else. Even the chief, to the community. Don’t even imagine anyone’s going to do anything about him. They assign him to crowd control with regularity.

  • midringrider

    I heard the story as you can out run my old Chevrolet but you can’t out run my 2 Way….