BELLEVILLE, NJ – June 17, 2019 – Sometimes residents want to talk about baseball. Other times, they want to chat about the weather, their kids or suggestions on ways in which Belleville can be an even safer place to live.
Whatever the topic of conversation, they invariably stop members of the Belleville Police Department’s bicycle unit. They talk about how great it is to see them rolling down the street and their willingness to stop and talk for awhile.
Two or more members of the unit strap on their helmets and head out on bicycles each day, barring rain, snow or other harsh weather.
The police ride along township streets, going from neighborhood to neighborhood, typically logging about 35 miles on a normal shift.
The bicycle unit enhances the police department’s visibility and accessibility. Members of the unit can carry out their duties as police officers if they witness a law being broken. The emphasis, however, is to be seen around town and learn any concerns of residents. If a neighbor waves, they wave back. If someone wants to share a story, the officers are eager to hear.
Belleville police Lt. John McAloon said members of the bike unit are pleased to see this ongoing outpouring of appreciation and support.
“It’s been an overwhelming response from our residents,” McAloon said. “They have taken to it better than we could have ever imagined. We are becoming more and more a part of this community. We’re getting invited to kids’ birthday parties and we’re even being given something cold to drink at local lemonade stands.”
Mayor Michael Melham praised the members of the bicycle unit for forging bonds with the community.
“This has been a great opportunity for the dedicated members of our police department to personally interact with residents,” Melham said. “Because they are on bikes as opposed to riding around in police cruisers, it’s easier to have face-to-face contact.”
The Belleville Police Department had a similar program about 20 years ago that was funded by a federal grant. Several officers rode around town on bicycles, but the emphasis was more about crime prevention than community outreach. The program eventually was halted and the bicycles were put in storage.
When Police Chief Mark Minichini revived the program about a year ago, the bikes were dusted off, refurbished and redeployed.
A local business owner, John Resciniti of Motorcycle Mall, noticed that the bicycles were functional but older. So, he purchased eight new ones for the police. The bikes are sleek and sturdy, with the word “Police” emblazoned on the frame and the Belleville Police patch etched on the front.
Minichini said that members of the bicycle unit are not pulled from the patrol units. Rather, the bicycle unit comprises detectives, evidence personnel and traffic investigators, for example, who put their desk work on hold to pedal around town.
McAloon noted there was some resistance among the ranks at first because there were questions about how and when the police would interact, as well as the perceived community reaction. Once they realized that residents were eager to embrace them, several members began to volunteer for shifts in the bicycle unit. It has grown from there.
Melham’s goal of making the police department more visible and accessible also extends to the officers in patrol cars. Those officers have “walk and talks,” in which they regularly park the squad car, get out and walk the beat for at least 10% of their shift.
Again, the initiative was met with skepticism, but as Deputy Chief Gerard Corbo said, “Once they saw that people were receptive to them, it made it easier for them to get out of their cars.”
In another effort of being accessible and visible, several officers last month found seats on school buses and rode along with middle- and high-school students to school.
It has all resulted in a wave of goodwill. Minichini noted that residents have been sending pizzas and care packages made up of hand sanitizer and sunblock to the police station to show their gratitude for the work of the bicycle unit and other members of the police department.
“The members of the bicycle unit have built a strong bond with the residents,” the chief said. “As they ride around town, kids ask them to stop and play soccer or join in their baseball game. There’s now a genuine connection between the police department and the community we serve.”
“And that always remains the goal.”