Montgomery Police Sgt. Mark C. Miller gently applied his brakes as he pedaled up the ramp to the fourth floor of the Wayne Avenue Garage Monday night, bringing his jet-black bicycle to a stop behind a car full of youth blasting loud music.
A few minutes of friendly conversation later, Miller, apparently satisfied the young men were waiting for a friend and would be leaving shortly, pulled away and resumed his patrol.
“People like to come into garages to take part in criminal activities for some reason,” Miller said with a shrug after reaching the roof of the garage, where he radioed in for a check of the license plate of the car — just to be sure — and to catch his breath. “Breaking into cars, things like that.”
The supervisor of one of the Silver Spring police district’s two new bicycle units dedicated to patrolling the busy downtown central business district, Miller, a 16-year veteran who spent six of those years on the Wheaton district’s bicycle patrol, jumped at the opportunity to lead one of the teams in Silver Spring.
Both units, each consisting of five officers and a sergeant, were officially activated Monday.
The formation of the unit comes little more than a year after the July 12, 2010, brawl ending in 16 arrests that sparked resident concern for public safety in the business district, and a month after a July 2 fight among nearly 70 youths in the downtown area that ended in a stabbing.
While a foot patrol was formed in the central business district July 15, 2010, just days after the first incident, the cash-strapped county police department was forced to draw from its overtime fund, leading county officials to approve a nearly $2.9 million increase in funds to the Silver Spring police district in the fiscal 2012 budget.
Of the 241,639 calls dispatched by police countywide in 2010, 49,291 — about 20 percent — were dispatched in the Silver Spring district, making Silver Spring the busiest of the county's six police districts last year, according to Montgomery County Police Department statistics.
The measure funded both the 12-member bike team and an additional 12 officers to help address calls in the Briggs Chaney area to the north, known as the Ida Sector, said Capt. Donald Johnson, commander of the Silver Spring district.
While the funding was technically active July 1, the 24 officers needed to be transferred from other districts and specialty units and from among the department’s latest class of recruits, Johnson said.
“You can’t just wave your wand and have 24 officers appear in your district,” he said. “Our decision was to get this [bike patrol] up and running as quickly as possible because the [central business district] had more activity in the summer; the Ida Sector increases will be phased in as they come through over the next six months.”
Bicycle officers are used in areas like downtown Silver Spring because they can easily move through the busy streets and densely populated area.
The concept has worked well in other business districts, such as in Wheaton and Bethesda, Johnson said.
“It gives us accessibility to areas that you wouldn't be able to access with a car, it gives you the ability to approach people without easily being detected and it's just easier to get to where you're going, maneuvering the downtown environment here,” he said.
Then he smiled, taking a few minutes from his constant pedaling up and down sidewalks and roadways to chat with a man about what it was like to work in the area and how to apply.
“It also helps us be more approachable for the public relations part of the job,” Miller said with a laugh. “The car and the car window is a barrier, so [being on a bike] breaks down that barrier. ... You do get approached a lot more when you're out on a bike and that makes [the job] interesting. People tell you all kinds of stuff when they come up to talk.”
In much of the downtown Silver Spring community, news of the bike patrol’s inauguration was greeted with cheers.
“This is what we’ve been waiting for,” said Jane Redicker, president of the Greater Silver Spring Chamber of Commerce. “Silver Spring is an urban area and we need police out of their cars on bicycles and on the street. … The closer the relationships between officers and business owners, the more opportunity we have to prevent things that we don’t want happening from happening.”
Kathy Stevens, chair of the Silver Spring Citizens Advisory Board, was also pleased with the new patrol, but said the additional security is part of the larger picture for the urban district. Funding for youth and other events needs to be maintained and expanded, as well, she said.
“It’s a collaborative process and a combined effort that needs to happen,” she said. “But I’m still delighted to see additional officers on the ground in Silver Spring.”