While some students might be out bar hopping on a Friday or Saturday night, one group of watchdogs is out riding bikes to make sure those students — and the general public — stay safe.
That group is made up of 12 uniformed officers and a sergeant working for the Columbus Division of Police.
They’re known as the campus walkie crew, and their goal is to be bicycle-borne for most of their time on duty, Columbus Police Commander Christopher Bowling said.
Sgt. Patrick Shaffer of the Columbus Police bike patrol said the patrol is the best there is.
Several days a week, these officers are out pedaling and patrolling, mainly in the University District — and they’re catching things that many officers in cruisers can’t.
“I’m just — I’m closer to it. I can hear things that are going on that people in cars can’t,” said Officer Thomas DeWitt. “We’re right in the middle of it.”
And it’s being in the middle of campus that sometimes helps these officers catch a criminal in the middle of a crime.
That was the case back in September when DeWitt and two of his fellow bike patrol officers, Christopher Billman and Phillip Walls, caught a homeless man who seemed to be raping a 21-year-old woman in an off-campus residential garage.
When they saw what was happening, the officers immediately intervened.
“(We were) just riding down a dark alley, shining lights into garages and came across that,” DeWitt said.
Billman, a 14-year veteran with Columbus Police who’s spent four years with the bike unit, said the bike patrol officers routinely check on open garages in the campus area, but almost never come across situations like this one.
“It’s very rare to catch someone in the act. So many times you hear about it,” Billman said. “It’s just one of those things — be in the right place at the right time.”
Officers arrested the alleged rapist, 36-year-old Randy Graham Jr., that night and charged him with rape and kidnapping. His case is still active but was moved over to Franklin County Court of Common Pleas. He faces three counts of rape and one count of kidnapping, all of which he’s pleaded not guilty to, and his next hearing is on Tuesday. While bond was set at $50,000, it has not been posted, according to the Franklin County Clerk of Courts.
Shaffer said the bike unit typically patrols the High Street, Indianola Avenue and Pearl Street area — places where many students are often walking at night and the same area where officers reportedly found Graham sexually assaulting the woman.
The bike unit is currently funded through the standard Columbus Police patrol budget, however, the division is working toward centralizing the budget, Bowling said.
In between catching crooks and fighting crime, the campus walkie crew can be found interacting with everyday citizens about everyday things.
“We get a lot of people that just walk up and talk to you about everything — sports scores or what you did last night,” DeWitt said.
As Billman put it, the officers are simply “more accessible” to the public because they’re on bikes rather than cruisers.
“People feel like they can come up to us a bit more,” Billman said. “A lot of times we’re in positions with the public — between houses, in front of bars, monitoring traffic and whatnot.”
The bike unit officers welcome this kind of interaction with the public, DeWitt said. After all, their goal is to keep people safe.
To do that, they issue one piece of advice to many of the people they come across in the campus area: get off of cell phones.
“Look, be more aware,” Billman said. “Your hearing, your sight, that’s extremely important when you’re out there. You gotta be careful, no matter what time it is.”