Police get closer to community

Bikes provide agility, chance to meet people
Jim Blaylock/Staff
Columbia County Deputies Thomas Beauford (left) and Juan Rivera are among the eight officers who perform bike patrol duty.

Deputy Kevin Faires doesn't refer to himself as athletic, though his job entails riding a bike 12 hours a day, four days a week.

"I'm in fair shape, I'd say. Average, I guess," he said.

Faires chose to be on the Columbia County Sheriff's Office bike squad four years ago because it was the closest he could get to "community-oriented policing."

Each of the eight officers in the bike patrol applied for that duty. "We didn't have to make anybody," Columbia County sheriff's Lt. Sharif Chochol said.

Deputy Mark Benson joined the patrol in 1998. As a recreational bicyclist, he said, it was the next step.

"I just don't like being cooped up in a car," he said.

In Richmond County, the sheriff's office has a bike patrol with two officers, including London Eubanks, who helped create its first team in 1993.

"It was like the best thing since sliced bread," he said. "It gets back into old community police work."

The idea for a bike patrol in Columbia County first arose in the summer of 1994 with then-Sheriff Otis Hensley, Chochol said.

After completing the mountain bike class, the first group of officers began their rounds that November.

Hensley had died a month earlier and never got to see the patrol's implementation, Chochol said.

Depending on the number of calls he receives, Faires said, he averages 15-20 miles a day on his bike, but has pedaled as far as 30 miles.

The only health and fitness requirement for officers is to pass a weeklong certification class, but they say the job shouldn't be taken lightly.

"Riding down Washington Road at 5 in the afternoon is not for the faint of heart," Faires said.

The challenging physical aspect is worth it for the relationships officers make with people.

"The public loves them," Chochol said. "In fact, we deploy them elsewhere and when the businesses notice they're not there, they start calling wanting to know where their bike patrol is."

Eubanks said the people he encounters on his downtown beat welcome him. Although the officers are off the streets by nightfall, he wants to see the bike patrol make an appearance during First Friday.

"If you put two or three guys down there (on First Friday), then you put the fear back," he said.

Like other officers, bike patrolmen carry guns and handcuffs. They also carry water bottles.

The officers cover accidents just as someone with a car would.

Especially during rush hour, Benson said, being on a bicycle can be an advantage.

"We can get in and out of a lot of places a vehicle can't," he said.

Recently, Columbia County officers were called to Thurmond Lake, where a woman had gone missing on one of the trails. Without them, it would have been a walking search, Benson said.

When being pursued by officers on bikes, suspects often don't recognize the officers, enabling them to get closer quicker.

"You hear, you see, you smell -- things you couldn't do in a patrol car," Eubanks said.

In the event of an arrest, bike patrol officers call another deputy for transport.

For safety issues, officers have the option of switching to a patrol car in extreme weather.

Despite the recent wave of heat advisories, Faires said, he's been pretty lucky and hasn't had to switch to the car yet.

When it gets too hot, he and his partner stop to check in on businesses and get some water before hopping back on their bicycles.

Officers can also switch to their cars when the temperature goes under 40 degrees or when it rains.

Faires said that drivers are usually really good about watching out for them and that he tries to stick to traveling in parking lots as an extra precaution.

"We have never had an accident involving a bike and a vehicle," Benson said.

Columbia County officers also lead bicycle demonstrations and safety courses across the area for children.

Faires said he plans to stay in the position as long as he's able.

Benson agrees.

"I was in love with it when I came to do it, and it hasn't changed since," he said.

Patrol routes

Pairs of officers in Columbia County are divided between a 12-mile loop in Evans and Martinez, Deputy Kevin Faires said.

MARTINEZ LOOP: the officers will pedal to the county line on Bobby Jones Expressway near Walmart, then down Washington Road and sometimes out to Publix on Furys Ferry Road, he said.

EVANS LOOP: Officers travel to Ace Hardware on Gibbs Road to the Target area in Mullins Crossing shopping center and everywhere in between.

RICHMOND COUNTY: Officers cover everything between Fourth and 13th streets.