The Fort Smith Police Department’s Bicycle Patrol Unit is back in action after taking a hiatus for a few years. Started in the 1990s with a federal grant from Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS), the program lost funding and officers returned to patrol units.
“I don’t know if the department didn’t reapply for the grant or it wasn’t awarded again, but once the grant was gone, it was up to the city to bear the cost. The department has gone through several ups and downs with funding for positions over the years,” FSPD Chief Danny Baker said.
It has been a goal of the department to bring the unit back to the department, and that goal was included in the department’s comprehensive plan soon after Baker became chief in 2019.
At the time the bicycle patrol program was started, the police department was at one of the highs in numbers of officers. At the height of the program in the late 1990s, there were more than 10 officers assigned to the unit, Baker said.
FSPD once again has grown its number of officers, and Tuesday (July 19), Baker said there were 164 officers in the department. As of Monday (July 18), there were eight vacancies in the department, but Baker said the department was ready to make offers to fill some of those vacancies. He said if everything works out, there will only be three vacancies by Aug. 1, and the department will be fully staffed soon.
Though the grant had expired, the department saw the unit’s usefulness in policing walkable areas in Fort Smith. Realizing a continuing need for such services in the city, the department decided to start rolling once again now that there was sufficient manpower and resources, an FSPD news release said.
“The last four months, we have been aggressively hiring and recruiting. … You’ve got to fill the backbone of your department, which is the patrol division, before you start shipping to specialized programs,” said FSPD Special Operations Capt. Daniel Grubbs, who oversees the returning unit.
He said the department has worked on the unit for about the last 60 days and is using the bikes from the original program.
“I got those bikes out of storage, and took them to a couple of bike shops. Those Treks were originally about $2 grand each. We spent a couple hundred bucks a piece, and boom we’re back out,” Grubbs said.
There are four members in the unit. Baker said there are plans to grow the unit by two in the near future. Two officers – Luke Hartman and Manuel Valente-Sotelo – recently completed a specialized police bicycle training program, Baker said. Sergeant Alejandro Marin with special operations also became certified as a bicycle officer, he added.
“Grubbs was one of the original officers in the (bicycle unit), so he may go out from time to time,” Baker said.
Grubbs said starting Monday (July 25) residents will start seeing members of the unit back out on a daily basis.
“It’s kind of a no-brainer. When you build that tremendous trail system along the riverfront, your standard patrol officer can’t get down there. You have to have something. It just makes sense. We have 30-something miles of trails with Chaffee Crossing and downtown. You’re going to have to bring back your bike patrol. To be honest, it was one of the most popular units in this department,” Grubbs said.
Baker said the program is one more aspect of the department’s community policing focus.
“It is a way to interact with the community in a positive way,” Baker said.
It is also a way to help curtail some of the difficulties the city is seeing in increased homeless activity downtown, Grubbs said.
“We had a good conversation with some guys (at the splash pad downtown) (downtown) Friday (July 15),” Grubbs said. “I said, ‘I realize it’s hot, but this is not your splash pad. This is the city’s.’ And after seeing us cross a few times, they moved on. After seeing us make a couple of spins past, he moved on,” Grubbs said, adding the officers will not interfere with anyone’s right, but their presence on the bikes will make a difference in the homeless gathering.
Baker said the bicycle unit’s presence will also be felt in the Chaffee Crossing area.
“There are a lot of trails out there too. We are not assigning this just to downtown. They may spend half of their day patrolling downtown and then load up their bikes and go out to Chaffee Crossing,” Baker said. “And we might use them in other ways. If there is a certain neighborhood experiencing a certain kind of crime activity, they might be out there patrolling.”