Wheels of Justice: Police Segway Skills are Honed at SFO, but Don't Hope for a High-Speed Pursuit

The Segway's circuitous ascent to official Wonder Future Vehicle of Tomorrow suffered a blow when the company's owner rolled one off a cliff and died in 2010. That was a sad time — but the Segways never stopped rolling at San Francisco Airport. In fact, SFO is the state's hub for authority figures in awkward bicycle helmets rolling at moderate speed through crowds.

The SFPD's Airport Bureau was an early Segway adopter, picking up its first four in 2005. The department still has that original quartet and has added about eight more. Some of the department's more venerable Segways have already racked up more than 5,000 miles; Sgt. Tony Ng notes that, on a busy day, an officer may roll 15 miles through the terminals.

Ng helped develop the department's Segway training course, which has since received California Peace Officer Standards and Training authorization and sanctioning at the state level. More than 75 San Francisco officers have received their Segway diplomas through the SFO course, as have around a dozen from East Palo Alto and half a dozen San Jose cops.

When asked what San Francisco police use the reasonably speedy two-wheeled vehicles for, Ng answered — genuinely and with no hint of passive aggression — “a form of transportation.”

It seems that police divide means of conveyance into two categories: “transportation” and “patrol technique.” The former is just what you think it is: Cops roll around on no-emission, maneuverable Segways simply to get from Terminal A to Terminal B and avoid plodding dozens of miles a day. “Patrol technique,” however, involves using a vehicle as a law-enforcement tool. California Highway Patrol officers, for example, learn how to use their cruisers to bump cars off the road. Segway-riding cops don't do this.

Even police bicycles have their own patrol techniques — Ng describes how officers are trained to swing the right leg over the saddle and coast along with the left foot on the pedal and the right foot dangling while pursuing a fleeing suspect. There are also courses on how to slide bikes, and any number of other Jackie Chan-worthy uses of a cycle in pursuit of justice.

But you don't learn fancy stuff like this in the San Francisco Police Segway course. If an officer has, at any time, used a Segway to chase anyone down at SFO, it comes as news to Ng.

The vehicles cost the department a shade over $6,000 a pop, and, says Ng with a sigh, the cops don't get a discount for buying in bulk. Police-model Segways aren't beefed up like police-model Ford Crown Victorias; they only go 12.5 mph, tops. “We do have red-and-blue lights on them, though,” notes Ng. “But no siren.”

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