ST. PAUL -- Think of it as an ice cream truck on steroids, but the treats are free and the driver wears a badge.
Armed with a video gaming system, basketball hoop, bike repair station and coolers stocked with cold treats and beverages, the St. Paul Police Department’s new “bike truck” hit the streets Wednesday for its maiden voyage, according to Sgt. Jason Bain, the brains and heart behind the project.
Bain and his colleagues hope the latest addition to the department’s fleet will have a decidedly different effect from squad cars when residents see it roll into their neighborhoods.
“This is about having fun and just reaching our kids, reaching the community with a positive message that we are here to talk to you, to get to know each other,” he said.
Bain envisions kids challenging officers to gaming competitions on the truck’s big-screen TV, and 5-year-olds playing three-on-three basketball on the 7-foot hoop.
The 23-foot 2019 Ford E-450 also is equipped with a bike maintenance station that will enable officers to repair flat tires, broken chains or other minor issues ailing kids’ bikes. In addition to ice cream treats and water, staff will pass out helmets to kids who need them, Bain said.
The $81,000 vehicle was paid for by the Otto Bremer Trust, not city funds.
A bicycle officer since 2002 and a proud helmet evangelist, Bain says teaching bike safety is a big part of the truck’s mission. He says far too many kids ride without them.
“The most important part of a person’s body is their brain … so if I can prevent just one little head, one little brain from getting hurt, that will be a win,” he said.
The project was inspired by the Bike Cops for Kids program in Minneapolis, which was started in 2009 by a couple of school resource officers who missed contact with kids during the summer months. They persuaded Children’s Hospital to donate helmets, then hauled them to various neighborhoods in trailers hitched to bikes, handing them out to kids and promoting bike safety.
St. Paul brought the concept across the river in 2017, and it was wildly popular, Bain said, but its reach was limited by the department’s inability to get to some neighborhoods. The truck fixes that problem, he said.
The department planned to debut the truck during St. Paul’s annual St. Patrick’s Day parade, but then the coronavirus arrived.
They’ve taken the past few months to create plans for safely operating the truck and interacting with the community during the pandemic. Officers will be masked and gloved, for example, and masks will be available for community members. The gaming station also will be washed between plays.
One remaining concern is that it’ll draw too big a crowd, Bain said, which is why the city plans to hold smaller, pop-up events in various neighborhoods.
While not ideal, Bain said the timing — two months since George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis — is perfect in some ways.
“We are dealing with protests all the time. People want to defund the police. OK, fine, but we still need to connect and talk with our community because we are still going to be here, it’s just a matter of in what form,” Bain said. “We can’t just go into our own cocoons and only deal with ourselves … otherwise we create a straight us versus them mentality, and we can’t live like that.”
Chief Todd Axtell sung the truck’s praises Wednesday.
“Our greatest hope is that families will come out to get to know our officers along with the kids and have some fun,” he said. “Anytime you can have meaningful and authentic engagement between the community and our police, it pays dividends for years to come.”
Besides police officers, the department’s Law Enforcement Career Path Academy cadets will help staff the truck, Axtell said.
“We want to make sure that our future officers get to know the community before they police it,” he said.