Bay County sheriff’s deputies expect to cover more ground with a new fleet of electric bicycles.
“This is going to really kind of change the game for us,” said Sheriff Tommy Ford, referring to the battery-powered e-bikes' 30-50 mph top speeds. “They’ll even drive on the sand.”
Deputies trained to safely operate the bikes will patrol neighborhoods, parks, beaches — wherever they’re needed most, Ford said. “When it’s a double flag day, we may have them out on the beach,” he said. “We may do a detail in the evenings in a neighborhood.”
Before receiving the e-bikes, the sheriff's office lacked a bicycle fleet of any kind. Ford says he expects the face-to-face interaction deputies will have on the bikes will help build positive relationships with residents. “This is going to allow us to get into neighborhoods, out on the beach, interacting with people,” he said. “It’s a lot easier, as you’re riding along, when you see some kids out playing basketball or out in the neighborhood, just to be able to stop and talk.”
Bicycle policing has become somewhat controversial amid nationwide protests. The Verge reports some police officers have used their bikes as weapons against demonstrators. One video posted on Twitter by local multimedia journalist Eric Halperin shows law enforcement in Columbus, Ohio using their e-bikes to push back a group of demonstrators. More than 7,500 people have signed a Change.org petition, calling on bike companies to stop supplying police departments, as a result of their reported misuse.
Ford says he's hoping the bicycles will make patrol officers in his community appear "more approachable" and "friendly." "Everybody loves a bike," he said.
The 12 e-bikes, which cost about $3,000 each, were built by YOLO Board + Bike, a locally-owned company in Walton County. CEO Jeff Archer says the e-bikes only require general maintenance, such as lubricating the chain. He says the batteries will last three years if used daily. "The greatest thing about this line of bikes is that they're reliable."
Brian Kelley, member of the country music duo "Florida Georgia Line," and his wife Brittney Marie Cole, who live about 25 miles away in nearby Santa Rosa Beach, bought the e-bikes for the department.
“We love where we live," Kelley said. "We feel super grateful that we’ve got some great sheriff's departments."
After Hurricane Michael, Kelley says sheriff's deputies went above and beyond their patrol duties. "We started seeing first-hand what they were doing in community: helping rebuild everybody’s morale, helping rebuild homes, putting tarps on roofs," he said. "They posted up in the Target parking lot, and had their home base there for months and months and months."
Kelley says the idea for the e-bike donation came to him as he was hammering a tarp onto the roof of a Panama City resident's home. That's when he says he saw a few police officers chasing a suspect through the neighborhood. "I saw an officer riding a bike through a backyard, and he wasn’t going very fast," he said. "And I thought an e-bike would’ve come in handy.”
Last week, he and his wife donated a fleet of e-bikes to the Walton County Sheriff's Office. In the future, Kelley says he might purchase more for other sheriff's deputies in the region.
"This was a gift to just give to honor them for their hard work, for their support, for everything that they do," he said. “They lay their lives on the line every single day to protect all of us.”