CLEVELAND (AP) — Cleveland police trying to keep protests from turning violent during the Republican convention are relying heavily on bicycle-mounted officers, who are not only more maneuverable but are seen as friendlier and less intimidating.
The strategy was on display Tuesday evening, as police lined up their bikes to keep opposing groups of demonstrators apart in the city’s Public Square. Later, officers formed a rolling wall to hem in protesters marching through the streets.
Police Chief Calvin Williams said the city bought 300 bicycles for the political event on the advice of police in Charlotte, North Carolina, which hosted the 2012 Democratic convention. Officers on loan from more than a dozen police departments are on bike patrol in the city, he said.
“Getting around town is a lot easier and a lot faster,” Williams said. “The tactics they use for crowd management and to monitor and assist for protests, you can’t do it on foot, can’t do it in vehicles.”
The bikes also offer a less tangible benefit: making officers more approachable.
“The bicycle breaks down all kinds of barriers,” said Maureen Becker, executive director of the International Police Mountain Bike Association. “It’s a catalyst for conversation. It is less intimidating than some other types of vehicles. And most people can relate in some way shape form to being on a bicycle.”
Tensions between police and the public have been running high over the past two weeks. Two black men were shot to death by police in Louisiana and Minnesota, and eight officers were killed in two ambushes in Dallas and Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
The bike patrols have been a common sight around Cleveland in the past few days. The officers wear black helmets and shorts. Some have armored vests over their uniforms, while others have protective gear on underneath their shirts.
One Cleveland officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because is not supposed to talk to the media, said the bikes are perfect for an area with closed streets and lots of activity.
“With the road bike, the ease of getting around is just exponentially higher than any other vehicle,” he said. He said he doesn’t feel vulnerable, since he wears an armored vest and is so mobile.
“I feel safer on a bike because I can get away and take cover,” he said.
Al Porter, an anti-racism protester who was in the middle of the turmoil in the Public Square, said the bikes were a “cold weapon of steel” that pushed back some of his fellow demonstrators and ran over someone’s foot. But he saw value in them, too.
“At least it’s being used to keep protesters from colliding into each other, rather than using billy clubs,” he said.
Law enforcement agencies nationwide have been re-evaluating how they respond to protests after officers with military-style gear clashed with demonstrators in 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri, over the police shooting of Michael Brown. A Justice Department report found that the equipment “produced a negative public reaction” in the community.
Political conventions saw the first use of officers on bikes in 2000 in Philadelphia and Los Angeles, with the use expanding considerably over the years, Becker said.
Officers must complete a 32-hour training class before they can join a bike unit, said Steve Kensinger, a police officer in Madison, Ohio, who trained 80 officers from northern Ohio for the convention.
“It’s intense. Not everyone passes,” he said.
In addition to making it easier for officers to cut across parks, go down alleys and thread their way through crowds, bikes can be used as crowd-control barriers, as Tuesday evening’s events demonstrated.
“The beauty of the bike is that when you hold it forward and turn it sideways, it becomes a barrier,” said Thor Eells, chairman with the National Tactical Officers Association and a commander with the police department in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
This story has been corrected to show that a private company from Seattle sent officers to Cleveland for bike training.