Green Bay— Officer Joel Zwicky was on a routine patrol when he saw a guy on a dirt bike zooming along the Fox River State Recreational Trail, where motorized vehicles are not allowed. So Zwicky pulled him over. But the officer wasn't in his squad car or on a Segway or even on a bicycle. He was patrolling on a specially designed skateboard.
With no siren or flashing lights, Zwicky did the next best thing. He twirled his finger in the air and pointed to the side of the trail. It actually worked. "He was like 'Oh my God, what is this?' So I pointed him in the right direction he should have been traveling," Zwicky said. Though Zwicky patrols Green Bay's neighborhoods in an unmarked Dodge Charger, each day when the weather is nice he parks his squad car and pulls his skateboard from the back seat, switching one set of wheels for another. Wearing his blue police uniform — plus a helmet and black Vans sneakers — Zwicky travels on the Fox River Trail talking to folks, and spends time with skateboarders at an indoor skating facility and other hangouts.
He also visits parks and events as part of the department's community policing program. He plans to bring his skateboard to Lambeau Field on Packers Sundays to patrol parking lots. "An event like that would be perfect. I probably couldn't go 10 feet without stopping, which is the whole purpose," he said. Neither he nor his bosses with the Green Bay Police Department know of any other police officer in Wisconsin, or even in the United States, who patrols on a skateboard. So, in a way, Zwicky is blazing a trail...or at least rolling one. "We have one-man cars. He's a one-man skateboard," Green Bay Capt. Bill Galvin said. "Just like officers walking a beat, this is an extension of that."
Zwicky started skateboarding as a kid and never really stopped. The Kewaunee native took an unusually circuitous route to law enforcement: He toured as a singer and guitarist with a rock and blues band called Boom Candle for seven years, opening for Journey and the Gin Blossoms and twice playing Summerfest. He earned a bachelor's degree in psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and after a brief stint with the Sturgeon Bay Police Department was hired by Green Bay. Two years ago, Zwicky, who owns five personal skateboards, suggested to his commander that he start a skateboard patrol. "Everyone says, do what you love. I thought, how can I combine my love of skateboarding and surfing?" said Zwicky, 40, a police officer for 10 years. "I came up with all the arguments: Hey, I'm saving gas, I could still take calls." Like many things new, his idea was met with raised eyebrows. Zwicky pointed out that bicycle patrols were unusual a couple decades ago, and now many departments use them.
"At first, I've got to admit, I was like, seriously?" said Galvin. "But when he explained more how he wanted to get into the parks and spend time with kids, it made sense." Before he could become a skateboard cop, Zwicky had to first convince Brown County officials to allow skateboards on the 25-mile-long Fox River Trail that meanders through much of Green Bay and neighboring communities.
Once the County Board agreed to change the rules earlier this year, Zwicky designed a skateboard for patrolling. He knew he needed a stable, low-to-the-ground board that could travel long distances, so he chose a two-foot-long longboard with a deck (board) made by Subsonic, GBomb-manufactured forks (the metal brackets that attach wheels to the board) and Dont-Trip Poppys trucks (wheels). Because of his Kevlar vest, sidearm, ammunition, radio and other gear, Zwicky factored in the additional weight he carries while on duty as he designed his board. The underside of his skateboard sports a large decal of the Green Bay Police logo. On each end of the deck Zwicky attached small, square red-and-blue flashing lights, which he didn't have yet when he pulled over the motorbike on the trail. He still doesn't have a siren, however, if absolutely needed he could just yell.
Though he hasn't pulled over anyone since, Zwicky has used his skateboard with flashing lights at crash scenes, standing it on its side like a flare to warn motorists away from the accident. When he's out on his skateboard, Zwicky is always in touch with dispatchers via radio, and he's constantly aware of his location on the trail in case he needs backup and must direct officers to his location. And if he ever had to use his weapon? Zwicky said he'd get off his skateboard first, pointing out matter-of-factly that firing a weapon from a skateboard has never come up in training.
Credibility with teens
On a recent sunny day on the Fox River Trail, Zwicky parked his squad car, grabbed his skateboard and began pushing off down the pavement, stopping to say hello to walkers, bicyclists and inline skaters. Some stopped to gawk while others didn't seem to notice the unique police vehicle. Jane Aubry was walking on the trail near her home when she saw Zwicky breeze by. "I think it's very clever and unique. I see a lot of teens on the trail and I think (the skateboard) would give him a lot of credibility with teens who might be at risk," Aubry said. Lauren Stefonek, 21, and Isabella Sipes, 19, both of Green Bay, inline skate every day on the trail, but until last week they hadn't seen Zwicky on his long board.
They stopped to chat. "We were like, hey, that's a skateboard. It looks fun," said Stefonek. "It's unusual, but I think it will be helpful." Because skateboards are not allowed on any street or road in Wisconsin, Zwicky knows that many skateboarders and law enforcement have a dim view of each other. His aim is to help break down those barriers, something he knows won't happen overnight. But by spending time with skateboarders, using donated skateboards to introduce youths to the sport and arranging for an event this fall to shut down a steep street for one day to allow people to travel on it safely, he's hoping to spread the word that there's no reason officers and skateboarders can't get along.
Now he has his own website — skateboardcop.com — and hopes the idea will catch on with other police departments once officers learn how skateboards can be an innovative device for community policing. "We patrol by Segway and bike, but you can't bring those in your squad car. With my board I can just bring it and go," Zwicky said as he traveled along the trail. "Other than riding on grass (which skateboards can't), I think it beats bikes every time. My hands are free. If I need to stop I can just pick it up and take it with me into my car or into a building."