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In Seattle, cycling cops have critical mass

Bike cops at the 2013 MLK Day march
A column of bike cops at the 2013 MLK Day march

There was a time not long ago when one of the most prominent images of urban cycling in Seattle was one of social rebellion. Once much larger than today, Critical Mass drew cheers and scorn alike. Ultra-low-budget bike repair co-ops taught people how to wrench their rusty found road bikes back into working order, and a person simply taking their space on the roads seemed a bit out-of-place.

Clearly, much of this is still true today. Taking the lane on some busy streets still often feels like a tiny revolution and bike co-ops are still teaching bike repair skills (though many more bike shops now operate in more corners of the city). But something big has changed: The Man has taken up cycling, too.

While the numbers at Seattle’s monthly Critical Mass rides have dwindled in recent years, Danny Westneat at the Seattle Times wrote a column recently noting that many of the same people who might attack Mayor McGinn for his unapologetically pro-bike stance would now be praising his handling of the May Day protestors relying almost entirely on bike cops:

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Take last week. The campaign for Seattle mayor finally kicked into gear, with the first debates featuring a peloton of candidates pushing to brand lead rider Mike McGinn as bumbling and incompetent, especially when it comes to his police force.

So what happens? The May Day protests. At which Seattle police finally figured out how to handle the anarchists. Using as their secret weapons … wait for it … a bunch of bikes.

Police employed dozens of bicycles, helping direct the flow of the protests and then forming barriers with the bikes to block and sweep streets when some demonstrators got violent. Police experts said that while bikes for crowd control isn’t new, the stepped-up use of them this year was the key difference in limiting May Day property damage and injuries.

And they call him Mayor McSchwinn as if that’s a bad thing!

Read more…

Now, I am certainly conflicted about the role of police in protest control, and I am posting this to neither praise nor scorn the actions of SPD during May Day. That’s a conversation for another blog (please).

Rather, if you take a step back and look at the events through a strictly bike culture lens, SPD’s liberal use of bicycles as an officer mobilizing tool and weapon is a very clear illustration that bikes have gone from being something novel on the force (“Hey look! There’s a cop on a bike!”) to being a core part of the department’s policing strategy.

In fact, there were so many officers on bikes that the number of protesters on bikes (mostly dressed as clowns) were completely overshadowed:


On a recent memorial bike ride for Lance David, SPD officers biked with riders from West Seattle’s Seacrest Park to E Marginal Way and S Hanford Street. Along the way, officers took pages straight from the Critical Mass playbook, corking intersections to allow the group to move through intersections safely. The rush hour ride was essentially a Critical Mass ride that included politicians (Mayor Mike McGinn, Councilmember Tom Rasmussen and Mayoral hopeful Kate Martin were there) with police officers on bikes marshaling group safety.

SPD officer corks intersection at E Marginal Way and S Hanford Street
SPD officer corks intersection at E Marginal Way and S Hanford Street

The number of officers on bikes has grown so much in recent years, it is no longer worth remarking about. Now, it’s the vintage police cruiser that has people giving a double-take.

“Victory” for participants of Critical Mass during its height meant a lot of different things to different people, and I’m sure the sight of a police officer crosschecking a May Day protester with the top bar of a militarized mountain bike is not what many people had in mind (as someone who celebrates cycling in Seattle at every opportunity, it’s certainly hard for me to see).

But if one central goal of Critical Mass was raise awareness of cycling, spread its use to more people and make it a fully normal part of Seattle life, then is the complete embrace of cycling by the police force a sign that cycling truly is a core part of our city? Or is it just a co-opting of a social revolution that is not yet finished?

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11 responses to “In Seattle, cycling cops have critical mass”

  1. Joseph

    An image that makes me smile: bike cops trackstanding.

  2. A

    One thing’s for sure, more Seattle cops could use more time on the bike. The physical condition of your average police officer in this city is an embarrassment. I was behind a group of cops on bike going up capitol hill in the afternoon on may day and they were all wheezing and bitching like a group of spoiled fat children.

    1. Seriously, would shaming any other group of people for having a hard time biking up Cap Hill be OK?

      Biking up Cap Hill is hard. Even for someone that’s pretty fit. Actually, even with a background as a pretty hardcore long-distance runner it actually took me some time to build up the balance, strength, and understanding of pacing to ride up Seattle hills with confidence. I’m nowhere near as fit as I was 5 years ago but I can make it up steep hills on a bike a lot easier.

      1. A

        Cops, by the nature of their job that they do every day, should be extremely fit. In reality it is just the opposite, they are generally far more obese than the average person on the street. They should be ashamed to represent Seattle like that.

        The Pine street bike lane, while a hill, is one of the tamest in the city. It would be another story if they were going up Denny but this was definitely a case of unfit cops griping about having to do something other than eat potato chips in their squad cars.

  3. Matthew Butler

    I feel like all SPD officers should do a rotation on bicycles. At least all of those who can, and I include SPD leadership in this as well. Once you’ve ridden your bike through Seattle streets and dodged buses and speeding cars, you get a much clearer idea of what it means to be safe on the roads. Add in the benefit of being much closer to citizens (vs. being inside a police car) and you are going to have a much more sympathetic, understanding police force when it comes to road safety and when it’s appropriate to ticket/ not ticket/ keep the peace.

    Also, what’s with SPD officers riding their bikes on sidewalks? They are usually in pairs and several times I’ve had to back into the wall of a building to let them pass on the sidewalk. Seems kind of crazy for pedestrian safety.

  4. I know there have been some negative reports about SPD lately, but as the contact person for the bike squad that assisted with the Memorial ride shown above, I must say I was incredibly impressed with their professionalism and willingness to do everything they could to keep ride participants safe! I mentioned the few spots on the route I was concerned about, and they really went all-out to facilitate a smooth ride.

  5. Kathy

    A big Thanks to the police on bikes and Segways at Alki Summer Streets and the 1st Annual Costumed Bike Parade yesterday. West Seattle Bike Connections awarded them honorary Bike Rodeo certificates. Our annual Car-Free Day made room for gentler modes of transportation for 6 hours. Which, if practiced more frequently, would lead toward a kinder, gentler, friendlier city. I would love to see more car-free days on Alki as it can be a car-congested mess on sunny weekends.

  6. Gary

    I’m all for cops on bikes. The more they get run down by errant drivers, the stronger the enforcement for driving rules, the more bike lanes, and general sympathy for bike riders there will be. Yes they have a “black and white” view of the world and won’t take kindly to bikes running lights etc, but if they sit on the loop and the light doesn’t change, it’s likely they’ll report it and get it fixed.

    Drivers once ticketed by bicycle cops will be more aware of bicyclists.

    Maybe they’d even support the Idaho rolling stop for bicycles rule.

    And yes it’s good for their health as well.

  7. There are some interesting points here. I agree that it would be nice for all of our police officers to spend some time on bikes. Not only would it be good for their health, it might motivate them to understand the rules of the road for bicyclists.

    Far too many Seattle police ticket bicyclists who have been involved in collisions that were the fault of drivers, not the bicyclists who are ticketed. Let’s not add insult to injury, let’s get more police officers on bikes!

  8. Leif Espelund

    Unfortunately, with the exception of special occasions like mentioned above, I have never seen a bike cop riding on the road (or even in a bike lane). They are always on the sidewalk. That doesn’t help them understand the needs and responsibilities of cyclists, it clogs up the sidewalk, and it helps perpetuate the idea that bicyclists should use sidewalks. Bike cops need to be on the streets like the rest of us.

  9. Today at evening rush hour I just saw ~10 police/sheriff cyclists in mass (in tight two-some formation) going north on 4th Avenue downtown. LOVED SEEING IT! Just like a Cascade Bicycle Club group. They were just out (and about).

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