About 300 Cleveland police officers are being deployed on bicycles for crowd management during the Republican National Convention, using tactics learned from the Seattle Police Department.

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About 300 Cleveland bicycle officers are helping control the sometimes-raucous crowds outside the Republican National Convention using tactics learned from the Seattle Police Department.

In Cleveland, officers on bicycles are racing ahead of marchers and using their bikes to form makeshift barricades to separate opposing groups — lessons learned firsthand during Seattle’s recent May Day demonstrations.

Seattle police spokesman Sgt. Sean Whitcomb said Cleveland officers visited Seattle to observe how bicycles were used in crowd control on May Day, which ended with nine arrests and five injured officers after a peaceful march devolved into a violent demonstration.

Since 2012, Seattle Police Department has increased its use of bikes for crowd control. In Cleveland, officers are controlling crowds at the Republican National Convention using tactics learned from SPD. (Lauren Frohne / The Seattle Times)

Whitcomb, who worked bike patrol for two years, said Seattle police each year encounter scores of demonstrations, most of which are lawful and peaceful. But he said the challenge of crowd management comes from the possibility that demonstrations shift and become violent.

“You show up in one set of gear, and in an instant, you put on protective pads,” Whitcomb said.

He said bikes allow officers to move quickly and be more visible, fostering better community interaction. Bike officers sometimes keep their distance from crowds, while other times they act as escorts or shields that keep demonstrators from other members of the public or property, he said.

Seattle police provided tactical training for Cleveland officers, including the use of equipment and formations that are best for various situations, as well as the philosophies and principles of crowd management, he said.

Some of those lessons were put to use Wednesday in Cleveland as skirmishes broke out over a flag-burning protest in the streets outside the convention site, Quicken Loans Arena. Officers used their bicycles and their bodies to separate those with opposing views. Seventeen people were arrested.

Cleveland Police Chief Calvin Williams said he spent three hours Tuesday evening riding with bicycle officers on patrol.

Capt. Tom Mandzak, head of Cleveland’s bicycle unit, said the department  had four or five officers who patrolled on pedal power, with no real unit in place, before the convention. Based on its performance this week, the bicycle unit could become permanent, he said.

Mandzak was among the Cleveland officers who visited Seattle to observe May Day operations. He said he was extremely impressed by how officers used bicycle for crowd management.

“We appreciated what we learned while we were there,” Mandzak said. “What we took away helped us be successful.”

The early reviews of bicycle cops in Cleveland appear to be mostly positive.

“Every officer seems to know how they are supposed to work and bicycles are way better than weapons or even billy clubs,” Christine Link, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Ohio, told the Los Angeles Times.

 

Related video: May Day 2015 coverage

May Day demonstrations on Capitol Hill shifted from a protest – with marchers chanting for Freddie Gray and diners thanking Seattle police – to a riot with flash bangs, pepper spray, flag burning and arrests. Read more. (The Seattle Times)

The news website Deadspin, known for its humorous take on things, criticized some Cleveland cops for apparently not knowing how to properly adjust seat height for maximum speed, or when to shift gears.

“Being in too easy a gear means you can accelerate quickly, but achieve a meager top speed while huffing and puffing and churning your legs only to advance at the pace of a geriatric pug,” Deadspin noted.

Seattle police have deployed bicycle officers since 1987, but stepped up their use in crowd control during the 2013 May Day demonstrations.

After being heavily criticized for being ill-prepared when widespread vandalism erupted during the 2012 May Day, Seattle police followed recommendations from an outside consultant by deploying waves of bike officers and using their bikes to protect officers who were making arrests amid rock-and-bottle throwing from a surging crowd.

Whitcomb credits Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole’s experience running the Boston Police Department during the 2004 Democratic National Convention with helping the department modernize its tactics.

“This most recent May Day really illustrated the professionalism of the men and women who are working the lines,” he said. “It’s being able to have a staff that’s dynamic enough and confident enough to address rapidly changing events.”

In addition to the Cleveland police observing tactics implemented here, Seattle Sgt. Jim Dyment traveled to Cleveland in April as a consultant, and is at the Republican National Convention this week.

“We are absolutely honored to have been able to share what we’ve learned … with another agency,” Whitcomb said.