VICENZA, Italy — Cyril Illidge, an Army Reservist from New York, was obviously looking forward to his upcoming patrol Thursday afternoon.
Once a bike messenger in New York City, Illidge is spending a few weeks at Caserma Ederle as part of his reserve obligation. Thursday, that meant strapping on a helmet, adjusting the seat and climbing on one of the four bikes the 13th Military Police Company uses to help keep the peace on base.
“It feels good,” Illidge said with a wide smile. And he wasn’t just talking about the bicycle seat. He also was referring to the uniform, a black-and-gold combination of short-sleeved shirts and shorts that has officers looking more like competitors in the Tour de France than standard military police officers in battle dress uniforms and black arm bands.
“I don’t think anyone would be comfortable riding around a bicycle in 80-degree temperatures for eight hours in BDUs,” Illidge says.
And if the uniforms make the officers stand out?
Well, that’s part of the plan. The idea, according to Master Sgt. Marko Hakama — operations sergeant for the 22nd Area Support Group’s provost marshal’s office — isn’t to send bike patrols on undercover missions.
In fact, the more visible the officers are, the better.
“We get a lot more attention from the kids than a normal patrol,” says Spc. Nathan Brumley, Illidge’s partner for the day. “We interact more with the community.”
Putting military cops on bikes isn’t a new idea. Some bases in Europe have had them for several years. Naval Air Station Sigonella in Sicily has one of the most active programs. At RAF Lakenheath in England, security police operate a fleet of 10 bicycles for much of the year. In Hanau, Germany, soldiers undergo several days of specialized training before getting on the bikes. Once they’re certified, there are military police officers on bikes somewhere in the community throughout the summer.
Not all the patrols feature police officers with uniforms as distinct as those in Vicenza, but all have two common elements: more interaction with the base community and quick access to places that cars can’t go.
“They’re a lot more approachable,” says Staff Sgt. David Henson, the noncommissioned officer in charge of the program for the 414th Base Support Battalion’s provost marshal’s office in Hanau.
Brumley admits that he wouldn’t stand a chance in a race with a car under most circumstances. But, thanks to traffic patterns, congestion and construction, cars can’t travel all that quickly on Caserma Ederle or the nearby Villagio housing community.
“We get from point A to point B faster than a normal patrol,” Brumley says.
Hakama backs that up. He cites a case last summer when a few kids were hurt while playing around a construction site in Villagio.
“My MPs were the first responders on the scene,” he says. “They helped prevent something that could have been much worse.”
Hakama says he decided to implement the bike patrol program at Vicenza last summer. The main focus is the housing area, where children are sometimes unsupervised. He said the patrols have helped statistically cut down on vandalism and other incidents. Officers rotate between the vehicle patrols and bike patrols, and they’re on the bikes only from April to September when the weather is generally cooperative.
“It’s a change of pace for the MPs as well,” Hakama said.
Combating crime is a part of the mission. But Hakama dismisses the idea that policemen on bicycles lose some of their intimidation factor.
“We don’t cultivate that image here anyway,” he says.
At other bases, programs vary in size and scope. Patrols aren’t generally as practical in communities that are more spread out. At such bases, bikes often are used when the base hosts special events with large crowds in relatively small areas. At the recent Fourth of July fireworks celebration in Aviano, for instance, security forces personnel were present on bikes.
Other bases surveyed say bike patrols save money — less wear on vehicles and less gasoline consumed. But Hakama said the savings at a base such as Vicenza would be minimal.
Illidge said he’s seen another advantage: recruiting.
“It makes a lot of the kids want to become MPs,” he says with a laugh.
“They see us and say, ‘look, it’s the MPs. Cool.’ ”