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Philadelphia Bike Patrols Didn't Reduce Drug Crimes, Violence

An experiment to introduce police bicycle patrols in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia, a major drug market. led to a "notable reduction in social disorder crimes," but it was accompanied by a significant increase in the number of narcotic crimes, violent person crimes, and shooting offenses, concludes a newly published study.

Bicycle patrols can effectively reduce street-level disorder and improve police efforts to arrest drug offenders and remove drugs from the streets.

However, the introduction of this police activity may disrupt the normal operation of drug markets, which can lead to increased violence from instability in the street-level drug business, says the study by Daniel S. Lawrence of the CNA Corporation, published in the American Society of Criminology's journal Criminology and Public Policy.

Lawrence recommends that before using bike patrols, police departments "should conduct detailed crime analyses and gather intelligence alongside directed patrols to better understand and respond to the potential consequences of their interventions."

In theory, "the openness and slower speed of bicycle patrol [has the] potential to increase the opportunities for interaction with the public," Lawrence writes.

"Equally, although foot patrol has the potential to reduce violence, more mobile units inevitably respond to the majority of calls for service. Bicycle patrol has the potential to bridge the mobility gap that can enhance community contact over cars, but still respond to calls for service in a timelier manner than foot beats."

About one-third of police departments used bicycle patrols "as needed," while six percent used them regularly, found a federal survey in 2016.

Lawrence's study examined a 0.36 square mile subsection of the Kensington neighborhood, known as the largest open-air drug market in eastern United States.

Police say that open-air drug dealing extends to more than 80 of the neighborhood's block corners. The area accounts for more than four percent of Philadelphia's homicides and 12.57% of its drug crimes in 2020.

The police department opened a substation in the area in 2021, with 38 officers who regularly patrolled on bicycles.

Lawrence found that the bicycle patrol unit had no effect on the total amount of crimes in the area. In fact, in the program's first year, the crime total in the bicycle patrol area was 13.1% higher than a comparable area without such patrols.

The most notable positive effect of the bike patrols was on what Lawrence called "social disorder crimes" such as disorderly conduct, gambling, loitering, or vandalism, which declined by nearly 25% over two years.

However, the drug crime total rose about 30% over two years.

There was a 24% increase in violent crimes overall, including a 63% rise in shootings.

Lawrence believes that the bike patrols' "significant change to police activity also introduced instability to the street-level drug business with the corollary of increased violence."

If police departments consider using bike patrols in areas of high levels of street drug sales, Lawrence believes they should "direct patrols in areas where corners are newly available for 'rent' after a dealer is arrested and have a higher potential for conflict to occur ... newly rented or open corners are where the majority of violence occurs. This happens when new and inexperienced individuals believe they can take over a corner from a gang or when a gang rents the corner out to multiple individuals at the same time."

Despite the bicycle patrols' lack of effectiveness in dealing with violent crime, Lawrence believes that in general, a "divergence from traditional patrol mechanisms may provide considerable value if managed within a strategic framework of community safety."


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