Vol. 80, No. 4Cover stories

On a sunny day, a female RCMP officer waves to a small crowd of people as she rides past them on a police-issued bicycle wearing sunglasses and a grey helmet.

Open approach

Face-to-face patrols help homeless, lower crime

Cst. Erin Stevenson patrols Cranbrook City, B.C., on a bicycle to build relationships with the public and stop crime more efficiently in busy, congested areas. Credit: Courtesy of Sgt. Chris Newel


Patrolling on bikes and on foot is helping RCMP officers improve relationships with local residents and help stop street crime.

The face-to-face policing approach is popular in heavily populated city centres where officers can easily move through congested, busy streets, parking lots and shopping areas, but is also being used in the suburbs.

Leaving the police cruiser behind helps lower people's defences and makes for better interaction, says Cst. Erin Stevenson, a mental health liaison officer at the RCMP Cranbrook detachment in British Columbia. Although there isn't a full-time bike unit in Cranbrook, bike-trained officers like Stevenson ride the city's seven square kilometres of downtown when resources and weather allow it.

"That vehicle is just such a barrier," says Stevenson. "When people see a police car, a lot of fear goes into them — that's their first instinct. And when that vehicle isn't there, they're a lot more approachable."

She says that when she patrols by bike or foot, many people stop her to talk, and that the regular contact builds relationships with business owners, customers and residents, which often leads to crime tips that wouldn't have been reported otherwise.

In Richmond, B.C., where RCMP officers patrol the city centre year-round on mountain bikes, members of the Bike Patrol Unit have also noticed that officers on two wheels are more accessible.

"Sometimes people don't necessarily want to report a crime to police," says Cpl. Dean Etienne who runs the Bike Patrol Unit at the Richmond detachment. "But when they see us face to face, they are more likely to say 'Hey, you know what happened?'"

Positive interactions

In Richmond, patrolling on bikes has helped build relationships with employees at homeless shelters and community housing to help locate homeless people, often with mental-health issues, who have gone missing.

Positive interactions with those living homeless come naturally when officers are on a bike because they are typically walking or cycling themselves, says Etienne. Talking to them on the street or during a scheduled drop-in to a shelter or soup kitchen allows for easy conversations and fosters more co-operation and trust during official police business.

Recently, Etienne had a difficult conversation with a homeless man who he got to know through routine patrols. The man's hoarding had become a problem for the city and he was being asked to clean up or clear out.

"It's easier for him because we have a relationship," says Etienne. "Instead of coming in heavy handed with a few police cars and moving him on his way, we can gently encourage him to look for another place to live."

Nearly 1,000 kilometres east of Richmond, increasing police visibility is a priority for the RCMP's Kimberley detachment in B.C., where officers are encouraged to spend time patrolling the community on foot. On average, two members of the detachment get out once a day, sometimes working it into their coffee breaks.

"It makes people feel safe and comfortable around the police because they have this informal relationship with them," says Sgt. Chris Newel, Kimberley detachment commander. "Here we've built that relationship. We're approachable."

Foot and bike patrols are also good for catching people texting while driving or stopped at an intersection, and consuming drugs and alcohol in public.

"With a police car, it's hard to hide because you're marked," says Stevenson. "Whereas, when I'm on the bike, people have no forewarning. It might take them a minute to figure out it's a police officer, and by that time I'm already there."

Engaging conversations

At the Codiac Regional detachment in Moncton, N.B., bike duty is assigned to a different platoon daily. Officers who are bike-trained patrol a large urban centre made up of the communities of greater Moncton, Riverview and Dieppe, between April and November.

Being on bikes makes interacting with the public easier for Codiac officers, who often leave the bikes and go on foot, says S/Sgt. Jamie Melanson, detachment Watch Commander.

"It's a very effective way to increase community safety and also foster relationships by having positive and engaging conversations with people," says Melanson.

Bike patrol is not for everyone, but police officers who are observant, good with people and naturally curious are a good fit for bike units.

"You don't need to come to the unit with super-duper biking skills," says Etienne. "You just need to be able to look around and see what's going on without running into people."

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