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On patrol with Toronto’s bike police

Members of the Toronto's 14 Division community response unit
Members of the Toronto's 14 Division community response unit
Members of the 14 Division community response unit in Graffiti Alley. From left, Police Constable Kirstan Draper, Staff Sgt. James Hogan, Police Constable Nikolaos Maicantis and Sgt. Lisa Ferris. Photo credit: Joel Esposito

Shells from my partner’s handgun bounced off my left shoulder. We were crouched behind two police cars parked in a V-formation in a dark garage, only lit by the cars’ flashing lights. Then, I took aim and fired a shot. My partner’s gun jammed, so he knocked the butt of its handle against his palm. This move can often clear a jam, but in this case, the whole magazine popped out. I fired a few more times as he put his gun back together. Success. He fired. I took aim once more and nothing. Now, my blue pistol wouldn’t fire. I was done.

Our bikes lay on the ground outside the garage door where we had dropped them before running in. To get to the garage, we had ridden our bikes up some steps and then down a few others. We had gone down a narrow alley with a shipping pallet lying in the middle. Then there were the small orange cones that had forced us to make slow, tight turns. There had been a teeter-totter,a ladder and another set of steps that required a cyclocross-style dismount, carry and remount.

The handguns were replicas of the Glock 22 that Toronto officers carry, which are all black. These replicas shot Simunition, high-end paint bullets that marked the paper targets hung on the back wall of the garage. Most of my shots landed outside the black silhouette of the person, but there was one in the neck.

My partner and I were the last to do the obstacle course. It was early this past September on the last day of the last advanced bicycle course of the year. I was with 11 students, police officers of the Toronto Police Service, and one member of the Toronto EMS bike unit, at the Police Vehicle and Operations facility in north Toronto. The obstacle course brought together the skills and techniques that the students had learned and practised the previous three days. And the shooting? That wasn’t the important part. “One of the main reasons for that exercise is to expose the students to what it’s like to go at 100 per cent to call, and then to have to respond. We use the shooting because it hits home. But it could be anything. You could get to a call and have to talk to somebody, but you can’t even breathe. Or somebody could be lying there and you have to do CPR. The exercise shows the students that you have to get there, but have to save something for when you get there,” said Training Constable Arshad Khawaja, one the instructors and designers of the course.

In 2013, Toronto had 643 trained bicycle patrol officers. You see them patrolling the streets throughout the year as part of community response and transit patrol units. At festivals or parades, they’re there managing the crowds. As a law abiding citizen, both on and off the bike, I’ve never had an encounter with the bike cops. Although, I must confess, I had often wondered mischievously if I could outrun them. I was in fourth place in that obstacle course, which means there are some that might be hard to shake. But more important than measuring my abilities against those of the police, I wanted to find out first-hand what law enforcement on two wheels was all about.

Police Constable Draper
Police Constable Draper demonstrates his bike-handling skills. Photo credit: Joel Esposito

The use of bikes by Toronto police isn’t new. “That’s something that goes back more than 100 years,” said Staff Sgt. James Hogan. He manages the community response unit (CRU) at 14 Division. He said that bikes did fall out of favour with police after that early adoption. Also, policing changed. With the rise of the automobile and the radio, most forces in North America moved away from beat policing, which featured officers out in the neighbourhoods interacting with the community even when there wasn’t trouble. In the mid-20th century, cars and radios allowed officers to head out of their stations when they were needed. Deploying police in such a way was supposed to be more efficient than beat work, but the new model had some problems.

“I always think of a medical analogy,” said Hogan.“Having officers in a cars responding to emergency calls is like an ER at a hospital: they deal with your problem and then that’s it. This situation is opposed by, say, a public health clinic or a public-health program where you get your shots and you get tested for various things. Another example is a family physician who takes care of you over the longer term so you don’t get to that crisis point.”The policing equivalent of the public-health program is community policing. In Canada, it started in Edmonton in the mid-1980s and migrated across the country. It took root in Toronto in the mid-’90s. Like the old beat cops, Toronto’s community police got out in the neighbourhoods, interacting with the people who live there to try and address problems before they increased in severity. The rise of the bike cop in Toronto is connected with community policing. There were some officers on bikes in the mid-’80s, but it wasn’t until roughly 10 years later that today’s style of pedal-based police work took shape.

Hogan’s office is in the 14 Division headquarters, a building a little more than a year old, west of the city’s downtown. Because it’s so new, it has a dedicated room for bike officers with lockers, racks to hang wet clothes (either from sweat or rain) and, of course, storage for the bikes. The police officer’s bike is quite a rugged machine. It has a steel frame, 26″ wheels with heavy 2″-wide tires. There’s a rack on the back, on which an officer usually puts a bag holding a ticket book, lunch and maybe a jacket. The front fork has suspension, but it’s not dialled. A siren, kickstand and fenders are also in the mix. Officers aren’t assigned their own bikes; they choose their wheels at the start of their shifts. The bikes have to withstand a pounding because that’s what they get.

All but a few of the 44 officers in Hogan’s community response unit patrol on bike. They work 10-hour shifts. Usually eight of those 10 hours are spent out of the headquarters on two wheels in the cold of winter or heat of summer. When I met with Hogan this past December, it was -10 C with the wind chill getting to -20 C. I was going to ride with him and Sgt. Lisa Ferris. Ferris claimed to have10 layers on. One of those layers was a heavy, Kevlar-lined vest. With the utility belt with pistol and radio, she was carrying roughly 30 extra pounds. She wasn’t sure my six layers, the ones I would wear on a road ride at those temperatures, would keep me warm enough. Police usually move at “patrol speed,” not the “response speed” I experienced in that obstacle course. Patrol speed is fairly slow so officers can look around and see what’s going on. It also allows the cold to seep through performance cycling apparel.

Ferris, Hogan and I left the headquarters mid-morning on a weekday, which is generally a quiet time for officers.“ The people we deal with don’t tend to stir too early,” Hogan said. The CRU officers of 14 Division patrol one of the smaller divisions in terms of size, a little less than 16 square kilometres. Roughly 152,000 people live in that area, which includes the neighbourhoods of Trinity-Bellwoods, Chinatown, Little Italy, Little Portugal, Alexandria Park, Christie Pits and the Annex. Troublesome areas, such as the western part of the city’s entertainment district, keep officers very busy, especially on weekends.

That day, the three of us pedalled over to Kensington Market, a neighbourhood full of small shops featuring foods from different countries, second-hand stores, cafés and bars. The local park, Belleview Square, had been the focus of a community policing project called Green Glasses in 2012 and again in 2013. “There were things going on in the park that weren’t allowing members of the community to use it,” said Ferris. “There was drinking. There used to be a wading pool. A lot of the homeless people or squeegee kids were allowing their dogs to run through it. The pool would have to be closed immediately and washed out. It’s a three- or four-hour process. We wanted to change the atmosphere of the park, bring families back.”

Ferris emphasised that Green Glasses was more than just enforcing laws that were being broken. Police would be enforcing those laws anyway. The project also had an element of education to it. Police wouldn’t necessarily resort to tickets, but explain how certain behaviour wasn’t acceptable or affecting the local residents. So far, the project has been successful. Residents noticed a change in their park. They made fewer complaints to police. Project Green Glasses was such a hit that it was expanded to other parks in the city.

I go to Kensington Market regularly and can make my way through the neighbourhood fairly easily. Ferris, however, has a remarkable level of local knowledge. I followed her wheel as she took a shortcut through a parking lot and then another down an alley. We made our way north to the Annex, then down through Chinatown and Graffiti Alley. As we headed north again, a man yelled,“G20 Nazis! G20 Nazis!” Hogan and Ferris were unfazed. In fact, Ferris had had that shouted at her before.

Police bike
Photo credit: Joel Esposito

In June 2010, when the G20 summit was held in Toronto, bike police had an important role. Because officers on bikes can move through the city’s downtown so quickly, often quicker than cars, the Toronto Police Service wanted to make sure they had as many bike police as possible. Many officers who had been trained on the bike, but had moved on to other duties, attended a refresher course. During four days, roughly 400 officers were caught up on tactics for the summit.

Protests started in Toronto during the leadup to the summit. On Friday, June 25, 2010, the day before the official start of the event, CRU bike police encountered people wearing hard hats and bandannas, and carrying hammers at Union Station, the city’s busy subway, bus and train terminal. Later, there were bike officers just north on University Avenue and Elm Street keeping protesters from the G20 site. Black Bloc protesters, ones who use aggressive tactics, moved through the crowds. One street north, there were sightings of Black Bloc protesters carrying bricks and rocks. The CRU bike officers then moved away for their safety. Officers from a public order unit (POU), what used to be known as a riot squad, then came in. On the Saturday, bike officers tried to manage crowds on Queen Street. They were engaged in a sort of juggling act with the POUs. Whenever a situation became safe enough for bike officers to manage it, they would replace POU officers, who are generally better protected with helmets and shields, so they could move to more volatile areas. Many of the actions by the police during the G20 – the arrests and detentions of protesters, and the “kettling” incident in which protesters, bystanders and journalists were boxed in and kept in the rain by POU officers for hours – we requite polarizing.

These images were likely what the “G20-Nazis” yeller had in mind when he shouted at us on that cold day in December. That incident was the extent of the “action” I saw while I was out on patrol with Ferris and Hogan. It was probably too cold for most of the troublemakers. My stint in training in September was a little more lively. The class rode from the Toronto Police College in the west end to the city’s downtown. They practised moving quickly through the streets: a pair of officers would bike ahead to an upcoming intersection and manage traffic so the group could go through safely. Even though the group was just out for practice, they put their skills to use at a snarled intersection when two ambulances had to pass. The officers were quick and co-ordinated as they directed traffic and got the ambulances on their way.

The students started their days at 7 a.m. in a classroom at the Police Vehicle and Operations facility. I attended the last two of the four days of instruction. On each of those days, Training Constable Arshad Khawaja started the day with a few clips of mountain bikers shredding trails projected onto a whiteboard. He drew students’ attention to how the riders positioned themselves on their bikes and how they kept their balance. In the back lot of the facility, the students practised cyclocross dismounts and carries, popping up and over obstacles as high as two steps and riding on gnarly surfaces. Their work required skills that most of us only use in our leisure time – on weekend trail rides or ‘cross races. These techniques would allow them to do their jobs properly and make them safer on the roads.

When Khawaja and his fellow instructor Training Constable Jon Urban came to Police Vehicle and Operations about five years ago, bike training for police officers was mostly centred on Can-Bike instruction. The two avid mountain bikers – Urban does weekly races just southwest of the city; the two have participated in 24- and eight-hour relays – then began to re-vamp the program. Khawaja attended courses by the Law Enforcement Bicycle Association (LEBA), a U.S.-based training organization formed in 1987. The pair also went to conferences by the International Police Mountain Bike Association (IPMBA)to learn new practices and techniques. At the 2013 IPMBA conference, they took in some new instruction techniques on bike control and balance from master mountain biker Shaums March (“His riding skills are ridiculous,” Khawaja said.) that they’ll incorporate into this year’s courses.

Khawaja and Urban’s work is paying off. Each year, an average of 75 bicycle officers are injured, five of those injuries get classified as critical. In 2013, injuries were down 40 per cent. There were no critical injuries. The officers who passed the four-day advanced course have the option to take an instructor’s course this year. When they pass that, they become in-field instructors, the people who lead the basic two-day course that all bike officers must take.

After the obstacle course on that last day of class, we loaded the bikes on the backs of police cars and headed north to the Albion Hills Conservation Area to ride the trails. We were going cross country riding on steel hardtails with street slicks, racks, fenders and token front suspension. The sirens would be a nice touch. It was also going to be the most heavily armed XC ride I’d ever participate in. Because the officers were technically on duty and would have to respond if they were needed, they needed to carry all their equipment, including their pistols.

At the top of the first descent, Urban expertly bombed down the trail. I tried but couldn’t catch him. Then, I went down. Right. Slicks. Having found the limits of the bike early, I adjusted my style accordingly and stayed upright for the rest of the afternoon. Near the end of the ride, officers who were more novice in their bike-handling skills started to hit the deck. The heat and the week’s training were adding up. One officer who was struggling exclaimed, “I hate this so much, I’m actually starting to have fun.”

On the ride back to the training facility, Khawaja said, “We don’t just do the off-road stuff because it’s fun. If they get that off-road confidence and those skills, then out on the streets, it’s no problem.”