Go Ahead, Chuckle

Officers receive training on Segways outside RFK Stadium. Twenty-five of the vehicles will be deployed for patrols today, with 10 more to come. (By Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)
By Allison Klein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 1, 2007

D.C. police officers will be hitting the streets today on Segways, those two-wheeled motorized people movers that look sort of like oversize vacuum cleaners.

Sure, police realize that some will laugh at the sight of hard-nosed officers wheeling about. But, in a way, that's the beauty of the Segway.

"People will come up to you and say, 'It's kinda silly,' " said Sgt. Michael Wear. "But you know what they're doing? They're talking to the police on a human level. That's what we want."

Wear runs the department's Segway training program, which graduated a batch of certified riders yesterday. Tourists might be able to master the vehicles in an hour or so, but for police, it takes two days of work to become skilled at the split-second maneuvers that can be demanded while on patrol.

Starting today, the police department is adding 25 Segways to its neighborhood patrols. Ten more are coming soon. If they are a success, more could be on the way.

The vehicles can go up to 12.5 mph and can cover far more ground than police can patrol on foot, while helping to conserve officers' energy. When officers walk a beat, they generally go 4 mph, Wear said.

"For a foot beat officer, it gets you where you need to be quicker," Officer Derrick Potts said as he threaded his Segway through orange cones at the training academy yesterday. "You also can go places cars can't go."

Potts said being on the Segway increases his field of vision, noting that the Segway elevates him by eight inches.

Officials decided to get the fleet of Segways after trying them in a pilot program. For the past year, each of the seven police districts had a Segway.

For years, private companies have rented Segways to tourists who don't want to walk around the city or who want to cover more ground than their feet will allow. Hundreds of law enforcement and security agencies use them, too, including police departments in Alexandria, Rockville and Prince George's County. About two weeks ago, New York City police bought their first Segways for patrols in parks.

For D.C. police, Segways are a community relations tool as much as a mode of travel, Wear said.

As the department's horses and motorcycles do, the Segways invite people to approach officers. Ideally, Wear said, members of the public will walk away with a positive impression of police -- one of the priorities of Chief Cathy L. Lanier's quest to improve neighborhood ties.

"It's high-visibility equipment," Wear said.

Unlike the tourist version of the Segway, the police model does not have pink accents.

In fact, the department ordered the "police package" -- meaning the Segways are either black or white, have a "police" label and have extra space for a pack to tote water, police reports and other essentials.

They have a front light for night visibility and are equipped with a flashing blue and red light like those on patrol cars. They are powered up by being plugged in to a regular electric outlet.

The Segways have an electronic chip that officers snap off to disable them when taking breaks. Each machine costs about $5,500.

Officers who get the two-day Segway training are chosen by their commanders. So many officers in the 1st Police District wanted to learn to ride the Segway that the commander used a lottery.

Not all D.C. officers are racing to spend their shifts on the Segway patrols. Officer Mark McConnell, a mountain bike officer who is a trainer for the Segways, said he likes to be out in the open but prefers to stick with his bike and get exercise while on the beat. He said he sees the benefits of both.

"When you're in a car, it's amazing how much you don't interact," McConnell said. "When you're on a bike, you know everybody in your community."

John Powers, a Segway government development manager, said the District's training program is the most comprehensive he has seen. It includes discussions about nutrition and hydration, lessons in dealing with the public, a skills test and a written exam.

Besides learning how to maneuver the vehicles, police are taught what to do if they see a crime while they're riding: Chase as much as they can on the Segway, then jump off and chase on foot if necessary.

It's the same concept as chasing a suspect on a mountain bike, McConnell said. It's best to stay on it as long as possible.

"You chase him two blocks, and he's tired. You're not," McConnell said. "You can ride up to him and say, 'You tired yet?' Psychologically, that really gets them."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company