Brennan Nardi's Column: Police on Bikes

By: Brennan Nardi

Police Sergeant Jim Dexheimer is an evangelist, but not about crime solving, drugs or traffic … the more typical stuff of law enforcement. Certainly those things are important, but when I met up with him recently at a south side coffee shop, he was preaching bikes.

The sarge was a little bleary-eyed, having been up late the night before writing a grant to fund a police biking effort in at-risk neighborhoods.

"Madison deserves a police department that is into biking as much as the community is into biking," he told me.

It's an uphill pedal in a big, busy police department, but seemingly insurmountable challenges are Jim's specialty. A few years back, he asked each member of his south side community policing team to adopt a problem. Officer Michele Walker suggested the decades-old nuisance of public sex at Olin-Turville Park.

"I was shocked that she chose Olin Park because everyone considered it to be an intransigent problem," he says.

The project began with an unprecedented study of the issue, a tactic known as problem-oriented policing (POP) that MPD has used successfully for other issues, including Halloween on State Street. The team spent the first six months observing the bizarre, aggressive behavior of the men using the park to hook up. Once they figured out the patterns, they developed a game plan, which included taking away the men's cover. Teaming with the parks department, they clear-cut the brush and removed invasive shrubs to expose hiding spots and to de-stigmatize the area as unsafe.

"As soon as we started clearing up the woods people came back in droves that spring," Jim says. "We were just astounded."
Other tactics included media outreach, design changes to affect parking lot traffic patterns and removing what Jim delicately describes as "biolitter … they were marking territory."
A few hiccups aside, today the park, along with its sixty-five-acre conservancy, is enjoying a renaissance. The Bay Creek neighborhood has reclaimed it as its own, formed a friends group called FOOT (Friends of Olin-Turville) and in May kicked off a concert series and "Woods Walks."

POP is what brought Jim to the department back in the 1980s. His brother, David, too, who served with him at the south district and is now a neighborhood officer on the north side. Jim currently serves sergeant for the west district's community policing team. Between the two, they're spreading the gospel about the benefits of biking, from the mental and physical health of the officers to fuel savings to tasks that could make policing more effective to community connections. The latter is a biggie for Jim, who says his police biking experiences have transformed his thinking about their efficacy on the force.

Jim and David's vision is quite simple—to encourage patrol officers to use bikes on a regular basis, with proper training, of course.

"I think it's a great idea," says city alder Sue Ellingson, 13th district. "This police department is committed to community-based policing and this in my opinion is a really big part of it. One of the big benefits is that it gets police officers out of their cars and talking to people."

"They do get out and walk," she continues. "But on bikes they can cover a lot more territory and see a lot more."

I would've loved to see a cop wheel by me the other day while I was out walking the dog. I've always felt pretty safe in my north side neighborhood, even despite the occasional shootings nearby. I don't know whether the castle doctrine emboldened this guy or what, but a man snapped pictures of us and then stormed out of his house to confront me about my trespassing cattledog, who zigzags from yard to terrace in search of the best grass on which to roll. The whole thing made me feel uneasy, and I locked my door when I got home.

Surely cops on bikes aren't the only answer to our city's woes—or to the guy who's apparently going to send pictures of me to the DA's office. But I love the notion, for instance, that kids from at-risk neighborhoods would ride to and from school chaperoned by officers, parents and teachers if Jim's "Safe Routes to Schools" grant is funded by the state DOT.

I can't think of a single thing wrong with our police department exploring bikes as a practical tool for safe, healthy 'hoods.

Brennan Nardi is editor of Madison Magazine

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