Note: This blog is the first in a series of stories on the Huntsville Police Department’s Bike Unit, which will be on patrol during the Mayor’s Bike Ride on Saturday, May 1.
When Huntsville Police Officer Eric Watkins was a boy, he dreamed of being a police officer.
“I loved playing cops and robbers,” he said with a big smile.
When his dream came true, the 33-year-old Huntsville native and eight-year veteran probably didn’t envision doing the job on a bicycle.
Watkins has served as a member of the Huntsville Police Department’s Bike Unit for six years. Launched in 1998, this 16-officer unit operates out of the Special Operations Division.
Watkins and his fellow two-wheeled officers patrol downtown Huntsville Thursday through Saturday and help with community relations, crime prevention, patrol, special event coverage and emergency response.
A 2006 graduate of Lee High School, Watkins primarily serves as a school resource officer (SRO) for his alma mater.
“I love the bike unit and the SRO patrol; both provide real gratification for me,” he said of his two beats. “You are able to effect change in both jobs. As an SRO, these kids start getting to know you. To be a stable presence to these kids, as they learn to listen to you, trust you and value your opinion, just means the world to me.”
Later, the day of this interview, Watkins would meet with a student at the school to answer questions about how to become a police officer.
As part of the Bike Unit, Watkins feels he can make an impact through community policing because it allows officers to interact with the public. He speaks from experience because after joining the department in 2012, he patrolled South Huntsville and the entertainment districts from a squad car.
“For some reason, when people see us on the bike, we apparently appear more real, more human,” Watkins said. “People feel more comfortable to just speak with us, and it gives us a presence — one that also helps deter criminal activity.”
Feeling of security
By the nature of their transportation, bike officers can also respond quickly because they can easily maneuver through heavy traffic, unlike a patrol car.
“People do enjoy seeing us,” Watkins said. “There’s a feeling of security knowing someone is always nearby to help.”
Watkins and his wife, Jessica, have 3-year-old twins — son, Maverick and daughter, McKinley.
Although his preschoolers aren’t quite ready to hit the road, Watkins wasn’t much older than his children when he first pedaled a bike.
“I learned how to ride when I was pretty young,” Watkins recalled. “Then, after not riding for years, my first real memory of riding a bike came when I jumped back on as a teenager. Well, you know how they say things are ‘just like riding a bike?’ Well, I recall that experience ended with me flipping over the handlebars and bruising both of my forearms pretty good. But, then, I eventually got back on and tried again.”
Officer Watkins, we’re glad you did.