Yale’s bike officers: ambassadors on two wheels

Yale Police Officer Joe Funaro rolls to a stop front of the Yale Repertory Theatre and parks his bicycle. Moments later, Officer Eric Rapuano pedals over to check in. Within minutes the two are approached by a female student who needs directions, a Midwestern couple who ask for suggestions for “famous” pizza joints, and several drivers who pull over seeking help.

This is community policing in action: In addition to keeping order, the officers in the Yale Police Department (YPD) bike units are sometimes like ambassadors — assisting members of the Yale and New Haven communities, and, in some cases, serving as the first point of contact for local and foreign visitors.

The YPD has had a bicycle unit (BUnit) since the early 1990s. It began as a squad of four and has grown to include 16 full- and part-time bike officers who patrol campus night and day. The bicycle squad is a specialized unit within the YPD Patrol Division and, like the rest of the Patrol Division, its focus is on community policing. This concept of law enforcement involves engagement with the community, the creation of satellite hubs for police throughout the patrol area for closer interaction with the neighborhood, close partnerships and intelligence sharing with community members and law enforcement partners, and making officers highly visible on the streets and in neighborhoods. At the heart of community policing is a focus on problem solving and building relationships and trust with local citizens — all designed to prevent, rather than simply respond to, crime.

“There are many advantages to bike patrols, but the biggest is more interaction with people. People are much more likely to approach a bike cop and say hello or ask a question,” says YPD Chief Ronnell Higgins. Not only are the officers more accessible to the community, and quicker to respond to emergencies and crimes, he notes, but policing by bike is also “green” and saves money on gas.

Yale’s bike police pedal around campus on sturdy black-and-white mountain bikes. During their rounds, they stop at various visible intersections, where they can interact with passersby. Because they are on bikes instead of inside a car, they are more accessible to the public — a key ingredient of successful community policing, notes Higgins.

The bike patrols have other advantages as well, notes the Chief. They can cover a larger patrol area (getting around faster than on foot) and traverse difficult terrains or crowded areas quickly. The officers can ride through packed parking lots, narrow pathways and other areas inaccessible to cars.

In fact, the Yale officers in the BUnit have at times needed to use pedal power to catch a criminal — sometimes ending up in the bushes or a tight alleyway, but almost always catching the perpetrator. “It is rare when someone can outrun a bike,” says Rapuano.

While they handle all aspects of policing, the bike police often focus on quality-of-life issues, such as public drinking, disorderly conduct, motor vehicle accidents, littering, and panhandling. Because they know the neighborhoods, the BUnit officers can spot suspicious activity; they also do regular check-ins with local merchants during their rounds.

Between them, officers Funaro and Rapuano have 21 years in the bike-saddle. On an average day, they pedal from 10 to 25 miles around campus. Funaro’s bike computer shows that he has logged 2,300 miles. Depending upon the weather, YPD runs bike patrols in the Central, Medical and Science campuses from roughly March to November. During those months, they ride rain or shine, and during the rest of the year, the officers will ride as long as there isn’t a major snowstorm or icy conditions.

“I’ve ridden on snow and in all kinds of weather, though last winter was a challenge,” Rapuano says.

The BUnit is not for everyone, notes Rapuano, one of the original BUnit members. He rides 12 months a year and dislikes what he calls the “isolation of the car.”

“You have to like riding a bike, not mind dealing with the weather, and know how to talk to people,” he says, noting that on average 25 to 30 people will approach him during his shift for assistance of some sort.

Funaro agrees: “it’s important to be accessible to the public and to show the community that we are out here to help.” During his first years in the YPD, Funaro rode on the night bike shift; he says that while the night shift can be “cold,” on days when it is sunny and in the 70s, “It’s just beautiful being out here.”

Any YPD officer can request bike patrol duty but must first pass state-certified training, where they must master such skills as riding through obstacle courses and down a flight of stairs, and dismounting the bike while in motion.

 “Any YPD Officer wanting to join the BUnit, who can pass the training course, can ride,” says Assistant Chief Michael Patten. (Neither Rapuano nor Funaro were avid cyclists prior to joining the BUnit.)

In fact, Patten notes, ““We recently added bike racks to several of our squad cars, in the hopes of expanding the bike cop unit.”