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Bicycle patrol pedals order

November 26, 2006|by KAREN HANNA

HAGERSTOWN - As he cruised the streets, Hagerstown Police Department Patrolman Carroll E. Braun said he knows all about people's negative perceptions of downtown.

He admitted he used to share them.

But, on Thursday, Oct. 26, as he patrolled the streets, downtown's most pressing perils seemed to be oncoming vehicles and uneven pavement. With a surgeon's steady reflexes and a bartender's nimble diplomacy, Braun cut through crowds and traffic aboard a bike.

The bike allows police to ride up on troublemakers without making a sound, Braun said. On this evening shift, he was keeping his eyes open for a handful of people wanted by police.

"I stumble on things, nothing major," Braun said. I have two or three wanted people I'm looking for down here."

Zigging and zagging against traffic, Braun swerved around moving vehicles as he pedaled through the downtown area. Into alleys and forgotten corners, Braun steered without any apparent course of action.

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At one point, he stopped to look in a corner of a parking garage, where he said a homeless person had been caught sleeping. No one was there.

Although Sgt. Kevin Simmers, who supervises officers in the downtown squad, said he measures officers' performance largely by the number of arrests they make, Braun said whether the police are doing their jobs depends on your perspective.

"There's no way to measure what we do because if I locked up 10 people (tonight), and you walked home and got robbed in an alley, you'd be mad at me," Braun said.

Downtown merchants keep notebooks that show visits by Braun and other members of the downtown squad. They say the police presence has made a difference.

"They see it, they hear it, they smell it and they are right there," said Cindy Brown, the director of programs at Otterbein United Methodist Church on East Franklin Street, where police sometimes conduct traffic checks.

Brown said she has noticed that some youth who interact with the bike-patrol officers gain respect for the police. The officers leave them with a "positive impression," she said.

'Ambassadors to the downtown'

A 19 1/2-year police veteran, Braun switched to the bike patrol in August, and he said he hated it at first. It was too quiet.

Now, Braun said he enjoys the opportunity to interact with people, and he eats downtown.

Driving a squad car is more isolating, he said.

"If I ride around and talk to 20 people today, and they have a good impression of the police, I did a good job," said Braun, who leaned across his bike as he gave directions to a man driving a truck near East Washington Street.

Simmers said the downtown police are as comfortable directing traffic as they are slapping on handcuffs. If residents come to them with problems the police cannot solve, the officers will make sure someone at City Hall hears about it, Simmers said.

"We are the ambassadors to the downtown," Simmers said.

Although some people have a negative view of downtown, Braun said law enforcement efforts in the city's center tend to be less glamorous than in the outlying areas. During his time on the bike patrol, he even has written citations for littering.

"A lot of the arrests we make deal with quality-of-life issues," Braun said.

Making the rounds

One foot on the curb, one foot still on the pedal, he listened as a young woman told him she was trying to regain custody of her children from the Department of Social Services.

In the week before the ride-along, Braun said he made five or six arrests for infractions, including driving while intoxicated - he assisted at the scene of an accident downtown - and with warrants for theft and drugs. One man was charged with blocking public access - he was drunk and passed out in the alley, Braun said.

"Hey, buddy," Braun yelled, as he pedaled off to chase a skateboarder illegally surfing the sidewalk on East Franklin Street. When he got up to the skateboarder, the youth apologized and moved on.

Outside Universal Liquors on East Franklin Street, Braun warned a crowd of people, including the young woman with the custody problem, against loitering.

As he cruised away from the store, Braun said one of the men looked familiar.

"The guy who walked out, he was from my rookie arrest 20 years ago, and they never forget you, and I never forget them," Braun said.

Many criminals understand being arrested is just the chance they take, Braun said. He rarely has trouble with them later, he said.

Although he described himself as shy, Braun talked to almost everyone he passed on the bike. He dished out talk about football - his heart followed the Colts to Indianapolis when the team left Baltimore - and he discussed his divorce without embarrassment.

When an older man called out on East Franklin Street that he had just seen the young man who broke his door weeks earlier, Braun gave chase, pedaling east on the street after a group of people.

A woman who loudly protested the allegations told Braun she knew the man was innocent. Someone taller broke down the door, she said.

"Someone skinnier than me," added the man, who said the real culprit looks a lot like him.

He couldn't possibly be the person Braun was looking for, he said.

"I just got out of jail on the 10th (of October)," he explained.

Bemused, Braun took down the man's information before pedaling back toward downtown.

"He's probably right, he didn't do it," Braun said. "He was in jail. What a great excuse."

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