HUNTINGTON, W.Va. (AP) — Some of Marshall University's police officers still drive patrol cars, but the school's bike patrol offers something more conducive to the college environment, officers say.
Aboard their mountain bikes, officers provide increased interaction with students and employees and can maneuver through campus easier than officers using motor vehicles.
"It's a necessary tool on a college campus," Marshall University Police Department Police Chief Jim Terry said. "It's a great asset for mobility and visibility."
At Marshall, the bike patrol started in 1992 and now involves 12 of the force's 22 officers, Terry said.
There's no hard data showing that campus is safer with officers on bikes, but the officers believe it is. Being visible portrays an image of being proactive to prevent crime, they said.
But it also helps them respond to reported crime on campus quicker than a cruiser, said Sgt. Scott Ballou, who has been with the department for more than 13 years.
Ballou recalled an incident in which an officer on midnight shift following a football game got into a scuffle with a man in Laidley Hall. The officer tried to subdue him with pepper spray, but the spray got into the officer's face and led to him being pinned against the wall by the suspect.
"I was on 6th Avenue at 18th Street and got there in 30 seconds," Ballou said, adding that he didn't think he could have driven and parked the car faster than he was able to ride the mountain bike through campus. "I was able to get there quickly on the bike and assist."
Each of the 12 officers on bike patrol are certified through the International Police Mountain Bike Association. Many receive training from the certified bikers at the Huntington Police Department or Cabell County EMS.
Mounted officers are better able to use all of their senses, including smell and hearing, to detect and address crime, according to the IPMBA. Bike patrol officers are often able to approach suspects unnoticed, even in full uniform.
Terry said it allows them to patrol the interior campus, unnoticed or in what he described as stealth mode.
Often times, that leads to citations for public intoxication or underage consumption for students caught walking back to their dorms through campus .
The job requires officers to be in good physical condition, particularly with leg strength and cardio. Many of the officers are already physically fit, something Terry said is necessary to complete the rigorous, one-week certification course.
The class is valuable because they learn how to ride a bike from the law enforcement standpoint, which includes dismounting during a chase and how to position a bike when confronting a vehicle or suspect.
Officers on bike patrol usually ride in pairs and rotate on a 24-hour schedule year-round, excluding inclement winter weather.
The bike patrol's biggest asset is the interaction they get with people on campus and in the community, Ballou said. They are more approachable and engage more easily with students, staff and parents, he said.
"I think the community policing aspect," Ballou said of the patrol's value to him. "It got me to interact with more people in the community."
Jeff's Bike Shop in Huntington handles all the maintenance and purchase of bikes. Ballou also said that Redman Bingo and Eagle Distributing have provided cash donations in the past year to help purchase two new bikes.