On the street with an all-seeing, 'head on a swivel' Saskatoon bike cop
The job calls for a good nose, quick reflexes and strong legs
Common biking wisdom has it that cyclists should always keep their eyes on the road.
But for Sgt. Dale Amyotte of the Saskatoon Police Service's bike patrol unit, it's a little more complicated than that.
Seated atop his Norco Revolver mountain bike, gliding stealthily down garbage-bin-lined downtown alleyways and the South Saskatchewan River shore, Amyotte is constantly craning his helmeted head left and right.
"It's very important to have your head on a swivel," he said.
A long way from 1992
The bike unit marks its 25th anniversary this year, having launched with seven members in the summer of 1992.
When Amyotte began his first bike stint in the early 2000s, "I'd just gotten asked because there weren't enough applicants for it," he said.
Today, candidates have to interview for limited spots amongst the unit's 18 members (including Amyotte and one other sergeant, who oversee the unit). Together, the members command an average annual operational budget of just under $50,000 (not including salaries).
Physically, the demands of working the bike beat have risen as the police force in general has grown younger over the years.
"When I started, there was no physical test," said Amyotte. "But as we have evolved as a service, there is a minimum physical test you must pass. Minimum run, so many pull-ups, so many push-ups."
New bike members receive training from the Florida-based Law Enforcement Bicycle Association, or a Saskatoon member who's been through there.
LEBA teaches a bi-annual crash course in everything from how to safely discharge a gun or taser after falling to the ground to flinging your bike toward a suspect.
Also, how to boulder up and down stairs without fear.
The benefits of bike cop training and a suspension fork. <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/yxe?src=hash">#yxe</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/saskatoon?src=hash">#saskatoon</a> <a href="https://t.co/Naai1vBNo1">pic.twitter.com/Naai1vBNo1</a>—@gq_in_sk
"Obviously we face far more cars riding on the road than we do bad guys with any type of weapon that pose us a danger," said John Rape, a North Carolina officer of 25 years and the vice-president of LEBA.
But what challenges does a Saskatoon bike cop face on a sunny summer day in August, besides the near-constant threat of sweating under the weight of at least 20 pounds of armor (including a Kevlar-lined vest) and bike gear?
To find out, I conducted a first-ever bike-along with Amyotte, cycling alongside in my much less well-maintained Norco Cabot road bike.
Saskatoon bike cops these days chart a beat that can sometimes take them as far north as 33rd Street but mostly runs through the city's main business improvement districts: downtown, Riversdale, Broadway and the Meewasin Trail.
After a necessary bit of paperwork — Amyotte ran a check to see if I had a criminal record — and a quick inspection of my bike — he immediately noticed I did not have a bell — we set out from the police station to the downtown core, on 1st Avenue.
There, while stopped at a red light, Amyotte recalled a successful pursuit that illustrates why bike cops, if not as fast as cars, can still play a vital role in nabbing distracted drivers.
Amyotte on his recent, speediest response to a call -- a child trapped in a car on a hot day. <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/yxe?src=hash">#yxe</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/saskatoon?src=hash">#saskatoon</a> <a href="https://t.co/GnjH1Nusig">pic.twitter.com/GnjH1Nusig</a>—@gq_in_sk
Amyotte had spied a driver texting while stopped at a red light, and while the car sprang far ahead of him, it ultimately got stuck at a light the next block over, allowing Amyotte to catch up and issue a ticket.
Traffic congestion is his best friend.
"They think, 'Oh, it's just a bicycle, what are the chances of them catching me.' You might be able to outrun me, but there's a radio," he said of cases where he can't catch up — in which case he radios a car to clinch the collar.
Amyotte wears an earpiece to hear dispatch calls, in order to maintain a quiet presence.
That's why from time to time, in mid-sentence, he'll pause as though in deep thought when really he's just listening to a call only he can hear.
His calls, or the things he sees himself ("on-views"), tend to be traffic and bike bylaw violations and public disturbances — people who are drunk or high and making a scene, or breaking into places they shouldn't be, like the construction site of the new Traffic Bridge.
While he's not dispatched to collect needles discarded by drug users, he always carries two "sharps" kits — rubber gloves and a plastic tube — because he comes across the needles in his travels anyway.
One thing he doesn't need to carry, though, is a bulky bike lock.
"I carry a double set of cuffs. I use one set as a bike lock," he said.
Watching the watchers
Mostly he likes to mingle.
"Special events is where you really shine in terms of your mobility, the way that you can move through crowds," said Amyotte.
On Saturday, he stood by a street corner on Broadway, carefully watching the crowd take in an acrobatics duo during the Saskatoon Fringe Theatre Festival.
Watching the crowd at <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/saskatoon?src=hash">#saskatoon</a> fringe. <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/yxe?src=hash">#yxe</a> <a href="https://t.co/AaPa7xlQrY">pic.twitter.com/AaPa7xlQrY</a>—@gq_in_sk
"You're trying to see who's not necessarily looking at the show," he said. "Anything that seems out of order."
Later, while biking along a river path, he spotted a floppy-hatted man crouched in a bush with a metal detector and biked down a steep hill to check him out.
"Today I'm just looking for older coins," said the man, Chris Williams.
Further down the path, Amyotte got a whiff of marijuana, which he eventually traced to four young teenagers who later admitted to smoking weed by a shaded, rocky patch under the Broadway Bridge.
Amyotte sat them down on a nearby bench and talked about how — even though marijuana will soon be legal — they are all still likely under the legal age of marijuana possession to eventually be decided in Saskatchewan.
After confirming none of them had a criminal record, Aymotte decided to give them a warning and a summons to appear with their parents at "drug school", a one-night course about the hazards of drugs taught by members of the police force's narcotics unit.
During their detainment, three of the four kids stared at the pavement, while the fourth, a young woman erupted into tears.
"You want to stay calm but you still want to be firm," said Amyotte of navigating such emotional terrain.
Amyotte had called two bike constables to help with the interaction. The drive back to the station, the wait for the parents to pick the kids up and the resulting paperwork would probably tie up the other bike cops for the rest of their shift, said Amyotte.
"One of the benefits of being sergeant," he said. "You can delegate."
'A call we get quite often'
On Sunday, I rode alongside Amyotte during the early part of an evening shift, and the tone of the calls was noticeably darker.
Within the first hour and a half, Amyotte helped with two calls about people threatening to jump off the Broadway Bridge.
"It is unfortunately a call that we get quite often," most often at the Broadway and University bridges, said Amyotte.
"I wouldn't say on a daily [basis], but definitely every block [four-day work stretch] we'll have a call like this."
Between those calls, Amyotte helped search for three drunk men who were reportedly yelling and swearing at people at the Fringe Festival.
Amyotte found three people sitting and slumped on park benches by the Pioneer memorial nearby. The smell of alcohol wafted in the air.
The trio didn't fit the description of the yellers — they were two women and a man, for one — but Amyotte ran their names, only to find out two of them were breaching court conditions by drinking. Rubbing alcohol, it turned out. They were arrested.
On arresting 3 ppl for being drunk by the Pioneers memorial by Broadway Bridge. <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/yxe?src=hash">#yxe</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/saskatoon?src=hash">#saskatoon</a> <a href="https://t.co/dyvUrih6F4">pic.twitter.com/dyvUrih6F4</a>—@gq_in_sk
The day before, Amyotte had approached a group of people seated on 2nd Avenue benches, including one man openly holding a sealed can of Smirnoff Ice spiked green apple.
"What we do have a problem with is people consuming Isagel [a hand sanitizer]," he explained afterwards. "They'll put it into a jug and use salts to separate [the alcohol] and then consume it."
As Sunday night wore on and it got dark, Amyotte demonstrated how inconspicuous he could become by turning off his bike lights and parking himself on a darkened path by the river, the lights of the city reflecting back at him on the water.
Bats flew over our heads, and a dog being walked by its owner groaned in our direction.
"It's okay," Amyotte called out. "Police."
Amyotte expected he would go on to patrol the streets until 3 a.m.
Then, for the final stretch of his shift, Amyotte would grapple with something not even the most skilled bike cop can dodge: paperwork.