From red-light runners to drug dealers, Edinburgh’s bicycle police have it covered

Hugh, left, and Percy Sutherland stop to chat with the cycle police in the Meadows
Hugh, left, and Percy Sutherland stop to chat with the cycle police in the Meadows
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MY fingers tighten round the handlebars and I take a deep breath. This is it, the chase is on.

Suddenly we shoot out in hot pursuit, speeding through a red light, cutting across lanes of traffic and weaving in and out of bemused motorists.

Our target is straight ahead, and he doesn’t stand a chance. Welcome to CSI Edinburgh – cycling standards investigation that is.

It is easy to joke, but for Edinburgh’s bicycle cops, their increasing workload is no laughing matter. And with the Capital’s ambition to become one of Europe’s most cycle-friendly cities, they are more important than ever.

Thankfully, incidents such as the shocking road rage attack on a cyclist reported by the Evening News yesterday are rare – and officers Janie Harman and Yocksan Bell are planning to keep it that way.

It’s 10am on the Meadows and I’ve joined them on one of their regular patrols.

They’ve no sirens or blinding livery but as our red-light jumper discovers, they’re a stealth force to be reckoned with.

This time it was only a minor infringement, a red-faced cyclist and a £30 on-the-spot fine, but it’s not just petty offenders that the two-wheeled St Leonard’s enforcers have put the brakes on.

They can also boast of cornering hardened criminals before the squad cars have even arrived.

In one recent case the unit came to the aid of two off-duty officers who had witnessed a drug deal in Panmure Place off the Meadows. “We got the call saying two officers had witnessed this guy making a deal and when they confronted him he’s gone berserk,” says Pc Bell, 40, a Lothian and Borders Police veteran of 15 years and who trains the bike unit at the station.

“Although we were right across the Meadows we cut straight across the grass and got there first to find this guy rolling around on the pavement with the two officers. The squad cars had to drive around the park and didn’t get there until after us.

“That’s a relatively rare incident, but it shows the benefits of two wheels.”

Of all of the benefits the bikes offer, stealth is among the most valued. The officers barely stand out from other cyclists, which comes in handy.

“To me the best thing about patrolling on bike is having that element of surprise,” says Pc Harman, 34, who joined the force four years ago after 12 years with the military police. “In the summer you get problems with under-age drinking on the Meadows. If we were in a patrol car they’d see us coming, but with the bikes they don’t know you’re there until you tap them on the shoulder.

“It also means you catch a lot of motorists on their mobiles.”

There are, as we discovered on our early morning chase, downsides to not being noticed.

“It can be quite tricky to get someone’s attention. We don’t have lights or a siren, and it’s hardly like we can go ‘woo woo woo’.

“There was one instance when I had to chase a fruit and veg van for about a mile because its back doors were wide open but they couldn’t see me.”

Lothian and Borders Police set up its first cycle unit in 2006 to patrol the city centre, and has since established units to cover Drylaw, Granton, Leith and the Water of Leith. The St Leonard’s unit covers parts of the Old Town and the Southside and has a range of responsibilities. It also covers the Meadows, Newington, and the leafy suburbs of Marchmont, Bruntsfield and Morningside.

Pc Bell and Pc Harman – part of the ten-strong team at St Leonard’s – deal with all aspects of policing, but in particular focus on fellow cyclists breaking the law. Infringements of cycling legislation might not sound like a priority for police, but there is considerable public demand that it be robustly enforced. Recent figures showed the unit handed out 30 fines in just two months, stopping and cautioning far more.

Pc Bell says: “We sat down with councillors and community groups to ask what they would like to us to focus on, and antisocial cycling was among the main issues.

“We stopped one professional guy on his way to work just the other week who said ‘if I stopped at every light from my home to work that would be 40 stops’. He was missing the point.”

Missing the point is clearly what a number of cyclists do.

The force has rolled out the cycle units for recent campaigns, including last month.

A total of 247 cyclists were stopped by officers and given advice for a number of issues including red-light offences, cycling on pavements and bike security/safety. A further 152 were issued with information on visibility.

The Lothians bike charity Spokes said the bike cops were not only ideal for enforcing cycling laws, but also provided reassurance to the public.

Spokesman Ian Maxwell said: “It’s a far better way of relating to the public than from behind the windscreen of a patrol car.”

Catching offenders and maintaining a high-profile is the bike cops’ main focus, but fascinating youngsters appears to be a by-product of their patrols.

As we patrol the Meadows numerous children point open-mouthed at the two-wheeled crimefighters.

“It’s still quite a novelty,” says Pc Harman. “People do a double take when they see police on bikes.”

rory.reynolds@edinburghnews.com