Zach Powell is more likely to need a bell and a dog leash in his new job with the Boise Police Department than a siren or handcuffs.
Powell is the newest member of the four-member Boise Bicycle Patrol Unit, officers who patrol the Greenbelt, city parks and Downtown with an emphasis on public relations.
It’s a coveted gig within the department and usually occupied by officers who also are cycling enthusiasts — guys who ride up to 70 miles a day on the job and then go riding on their days off, too.
Powell, who has been in the department for seven years, pursued a rare opening on the bicycle unit because of his interaction with those officers.
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“They’re all happy,” Powell said. “That’s the thing that makes you want to join them.”
The officers are perhaps the most common point of interaction between the police department and the public. They work various shifts from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., seven days a week, year-round in the areas of the city where people are walking, running, biking, rollerblading, rafting, birding and partying.
“The bike unit considers ourselves the ambassadors for the city,” said Blake Slater, who has worked in the unit for three years. “We do a lot of face-to-face interaction with folks from out of town. ... Most of what we do is public education, problem solving, community policing. This isn’t a revenue-generation position. This is to make sure that your experience in the parks and Downtown Boise is a memorable and pleasurable experience.”
(Watch a video of Powell and Slater here.)
Said Powell: “You have to come to work and have a smile. You can’t have a bad day. You have to be in a pretty good mood all the time.”
Prospective bike officers must combine a love of cycling with the fitness required for the grueling task and the communication skills to put the public at ease.
They are more exposed to the public than other officers, which is why Powell quickly realized he needed to add a bell to his bike. Children tend to run toward the officers.
“Being in a car is a little more isolated,” Slater said. “Being on a bicycle allows me that public interaction that is not only healthy for me but also great for the community. So I enjoy it. Having said that, you also have to be a really, really good communicator. And those of us on the bike unit happen to be blessed with the gift of gab.”
They patrol the Greenbelt from near Les Bois Park in Garden City to Marianne Williams Park on the eastern edge of Boise — about a 12-mile stretch of bike path that mostly occupies both sides of the Boise River. They venture north into Downtown all the way up to Camel’s Back Park, too.
They respond to calls near them or in places where bikes are advantageous, such as the parks and Downtown. When they make an arrest — maybe a couple times a month, Slater said — a motor officer provides assistance.
Many of the bike officers’ self-generated calls involve alcohol use or intoxication. The officers also educate the public on smoking laws, respond to injuries in Greenbelt accidents, help cyclists with issues such as flat tires, provide directions and clean up garbage. (Rubber gloves and trash bags were also on Powell’s list of new items to carry on patrol.)
Along the way, they get to know many frequent park users by name. Powell has started an index card with names and identifying characteristics — one daily park user counts birds, for example — to help him remember those people by name.
“You’re always doing something,” Powell said. “You’re always helping someone. There is no downtime. I feel like if there were 20 of us, we could benefit somewhere in the city. It’s really quality of life things ... just those simple things that make Boise and the parks better.”
Boise Police began using bicycle officers part time in the summer of 1989. The unit expanded to two full-time officers in 1993 and has had as many as six since then. This summer, the team has been supplemented by two school resource officers.
One officer recently retired after 18 years on the bike. Another has 16 years and is still riding. Slater estimates that bike officers average eight to 10 years on the job before doing something else.
“This is a very coveted spot,” he said. “Not only are you working in the gem of the city, which is the Greenbelt and the parks system, but it’s so physically demanding that it’s a difficult spot to get.”
Even in the winter, Slater says there’s no better place to work than on the Greenbelt. He has patrolled on days as hot as 108 degrees and as cold as 6 — a 102-degree range in temperatures.
The officers ride in any condition but ice. Slater missed two days on the bike in 2013 and seven in 2014.
“We can cycle in the snow,” he said. “Ice makes the Greenbelt and the Downtown core impassable on a bicycle, barring studded tires or something like that. We don’t have those.”
The officers ride Specialized Stumpjumper Comp bikes leased from George’s Cycles, which also provides all of the maintenance. They get new bikes every two years.
The miles add up quickly. Slater has ridden as many as 73 miles in one shift. He works 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. four days a week.
And when he gets home, he grabs a personal bike to ride some more. He lives near the Greenbelt and owns three bikes. He gives his body one day off each week — the day after his last shift — but rides the other two off-days. He rode in the Lyle Pearson 200, a ride to Sun Valley, earlier this year on a team of police officers and firefighters.
Slater’s cycling habit dates to childhood in La Grande, Ore., where he was the middle of seven siblings. He did his first bicycle tour, of the Oregon Coast, when he was 14 years old.
“When you have seven children, bikes are how you get around,” he said.
Powell also is a competitive cyclist. He races mountain bikes.
“I grew up just outside of Downtown and rode mountain bikes growing up,” he said. “So this was always a neat opportunity. I was pretty excited when a position finally came available, and I was in a good spot to apply for it.”
Like many people who enjoy their jobs, Powell and Slater were able to pair their interests with their careers.
Their office is a nice perk, too.
“I love cycling so much,” Slater said. “Being able to bring my passion for cycling to my profession and being able to do that on the Greenbelt, I don’t know how you could possibly beat that for a job.”