Cops with bikes: A way to engage the community or a tactic to bulldoze them?

Police raid the Occupy ICE encampment outside of a Philadelphia ICE office on 8th and Cherry in Center City on July 5.

The Philadelphia Police Department has been lauded for its restraint in handling protests over the last several years, often opting to take a less militaristic approach. More talking, less Tasering. Fewer armored cars, more bikes. 

But some “Occupy ICE” protesters who were kicked out of a Center City encampment last week have claimed that police used excessive force when they barreled in on those very bikes — a tactic some experts say was aggressive and at the very least is ironic.

That “goes exactly against the whole purpose of using bicycles and taking a softer approach,” said Alex Vitale, a professor of sociology at Brooklyn College, who has written about crowd-control policing. Nationally, he said, bike patrols increased in the 1980s as part of a push toward “community policing,” which became a focus of some urban police departments after the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014. The thinking is that bikes, as opposed to police cruisers, increase visibility in communities — “to kind of give an overall feel that the police are not this armored, separated force.”

Now, a 29-year-old protester said Tuesday that she still has bruises left over from the raid, some of which she claims came from police “ramming” her with a bicycle.

“They were literally holding their bikes as weapons to hold the line,” said Jaya, an Occupy ICE protester now demonstrating at City Hall who asked that her last name be withheld. Protesters have become wary of sharing their last names for fear of jeopardizing their jobs or being doxed, or having private information disclosed, online.

A Philadelphia police spokesperson said last week that protesters were given “numerous warnings” before police moved in. The department did not answer further questions about why it used bicycles to clear the site.

Mayor Kenney, himself a target of the protesters’ ire, announced last week that he had asked the Police Advisory Commission, a citizen oversight board, to review the raid “to see if we can make some improvements.” While Kenney acknowledged that the raid was “unpleasant,” he’s largely backed the police, pointing out that a protester was filmed headbutting a police commander while being removed from the encampment.

Hans Menos, executive director of the Police Advisory Commission, said Wednesday that based on videos he’s seen, there’s nothing “glaringly problematic” about the police actions — though, he said, the commission will likely offer guidance on issues related to how the police communicated with protesters before raiding the site.

Menos said he was initially “really concerned about the use of bikes.” But now, he said, he’s “not sure that a bike is really way worse than other, more militaristic, gear.”

The sweep on July 5 — when police held bikes to create a fence and push protesters — was not the first time Philadelphia police have been criticized for using bikes as bulldozers.  When police evicted Occupy Philly protesters from a campsite in Dilworth Plaza in 2011, they also wielded bikes as portable cordons and used them to move people into certain areas.

Diane Akerman, then a law student at Temple University and a member of Occupy Philadelphia’s legal collective, told the Inquirer at the time that police were aggressive with bike units, saying, “I was pushed with a bicycle against a wall.” Reporters covering the eviction wrote:

“Protesters repeatedly accused police of using their bikes to shove people, and at least twice, a protester ended up on the ground. In one incident, one police officer scolded another for using his bike to shove a marcher.”

Nate Kleinman, 36, was among the protesters “corralled around with cops who were using bicycles” in November 2011 on the night the campsite was cleared. He said he saw people being pushed over or injured by police, who picked up bikes and used them to move protesters backward.

“It may be seen as an improvement over using fire hoses or tear gas,” he said, “but they definitely can hurt people.”

Camera icon JESSICA GRIFFIN/ STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Police confront demonstrators outside the federal ICE office in Philadelphia on July 5. Several protesters were arrested.

Paul Hetznecker, a Philadelphia-based lawyer who frequently represents protesters, said he remembers Philadelphia police using bikes “to push people and corral them and force them from a particular spot” for years, dating to 2000, when the Republican National Convention took place here. He called it “a really aggressive tactic.”

When the RNC was in Cleveland in 2016, police bikes were used in a similar way and were seen as a “secret weapon” to control protests. Vitale said other departments have faced criticism over their use of bikes during protests, including in Seattle; Portland, Ore.; and San Francisco. Vitale said wielding bikes during protests does allow police to easily close off a street or create a line between protesters and counter-protesters, making them an attractive policing tool.

“They allow for flexibility,” he said, “but that’s very different than using them as battering rams. Just imagine for a second if they had come through the encampment with batons and used the batons to smash everything. Think how much more immediately people would have read that as inappropriate.”

Camera icon JESSICA GRIFFIN/ Staff Photographer
Police use their bikes to move through the Occupy ICE encampment last week.

John Rape, vice president of the Florida-based Law Enforcement Bicycle Association, a nonprofit that trains officers, said using bikes to maintain a fence while backing a crowd out of an area is “a standard bike tactic that’s used in crowd-control techniques.” He said that during protests and demonstrations, bikes are best used as a “first line.”

“When folks see officers on a bike, we’re a little bit less intimidating,” he said. “A little bit more approachable.”