dandyARCHIVE: Behind Bars

Behind Bars: On the road with Toronto's bike cops

~This story originally appeared in issue 3 of dandyhorse, summer 2009. ~

Story by Tammy Thorne and Dana Lacey, Photo by Neil Wysocki

There’s four of us on bikes, bombing north up Bathurst toward Bloor — one of the busiest intersections in the city. We switch lanes casually — left arms extended — and cut through the rush of oncoming cars. Miraculously, the traffic parts, allowing our tiny gang to turn onto Bloor with ease with nary a blaring horn. The motorists give us plenty of room and wait until we’ve fully cleared the intersection before speeding off.

Moses couldn’t have done it better.

But this is no biblical intervention: we’re riding with the cops.

On a sunny Saturday in July, dandyhorse rode with Sergeant Jeffrey Zammit (pictured up front) and Constable Ricky Benevides (pictured on the left) of the 14 Division community response unit. Their patrol covers colourful Parkdale from Jameson Avenue and the Canadian National Railway line in the west, to the Canadian Pacific Railway line in the north, to Spadina to the east and the shoreline to the south. Although one of the smallest in area, it is considered one of the busiest divisions for police.

They worked hard to show us they cared about bikes: they ran the registration number of every bicycle we came into contact with. “I bought it from a friend” just didn’t cut it for Zammit, who expressed frustration with cyclists who fail to register their bikes. “We want to get them back to their owners,” he says.

The police have pumped up their two-wheeled presence in recent years. All new officers are required to do a six-month stint of community policing by bike, and attend a condensed can-bike style course. Since 1989, 1,400 officers have

trained to patrol by bicycle — about a third of the uniformed force — and 50 to 75 are on Toronto streets every day.

Now the police know what we commuter cyclists know — it’s always better by bike. Bicycles offer mobility, speed and access to tight spaces, all essential tools for protectors of city streets.

“I can hear, see and smell everything when I’m on a bike,” says Zammit. “I can stop suddenly and duck into alleyways behind bars. I can’t do that in a car.”

People find cops on bikes more approachable. And bikes offer stealth, which is great for police, but unfortunate for the trio of men we caught drinking tall cans in Alexandra Park.

And for everyone who thinks cops on bikes still spend too much time at the donut shop (or in the case of these more urbane officers, Starbucks),

dandyhorse offers this food for thought: Zammit and crew spend 40-plus hours a week on their bikes and cover an average of 25 km per shift. Toronto’s finest are getting fitter by the day. And while most of the fleet are the hybridized mountain bike-style Urbanites (from Urbane Cyclist), the police do have some undercover bikes. So, the absence of a cruiser doesn’t mean you’re in the clear.

Bike cops are also usually the ones tasked with conducting the yearly “Safe Cycling — Share the Responsibility” campaign that saw 5,907 tickets issued to motorists and cyclists who were found committing offences. Of the tickets issued to

cyclists, more than 1,300 were given for moving violations and 747 for “bicycle equipment offences” (often missing bells, lights, brakes, etc.) Giving someone a ticket gets the message across in a way that a warning can’t, Zammit says, and besides: “It only happens once a year.” Only 200 tickets were issued for vehicles parked in bike lanes. And while he says there is no quota for officers working the safety blitz, Zammit adds, “I do want to see numbers at the end of the day.”

Last year the Toronto Cycling Advisory Committee contested the timing of the blitz

— the first week of Bike Month — and the City passed a motion that moved this year’s road safety campaign to the week after the monthlong celebration of all things bike.

An officer that spends their whole day on a bike is surely more sympathetic to the urban cyclist’s woes, especially bike theft, (the investigation continues for a 14 Division police bike that was recently stolen, or “Parkdaled,” as Zammit puts it). But after spending a day riding with bike cops, it’s obvious that the police don’t really get the true commuter cycling experience. It would appear that when you carry a gun, you always get the right-of-way.

~This story originally appeared in issue 3 of dandyhorse, summer 2009. ~

Related on the dandyBLOG:

Bike Cops comedy hopes to win CBC Comedy Coup

Heels on Wheels: Evalyn Parry (win tickets to SPIN)

dandyARCHIVE: Heels on Wheels with Sook-Yin Lee

Other in Toronto

What's happening on Harbord? (from last fall)



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