Cpl. John Newnan perched on his bicycle Tuesday evening, alert to the flicker of light on the other side of a dark field at Lake Elkhorn in Columbia's Owen Brown village.
Under Columbia Association rules, the area was closed for the night. The officer -- one of six who regularly patrol on bicycles in Howard County in an effort to increase police visibility -- pedaled across the field and turned on his bicycle's headlight.
Somebody was having a tough time lighting a cigarette -- and he was drunk.
Corporal Newnan recognized the man, a familiar nuisance to nearby residents, and warned him and his friend to go home.
"There's nothing like being out here," said Corporal Newnan, a 17-year veteran. "I get to see everything."
He and his fellow officers are part of a 2-year-old program that puts bicycle-mounted officers on duty along Columbia's increasingly dangerous pathways and parks, as well as in other parts of the county.
Police say such patrols are especially needed in Columbia, where the secluded paths and trails provide cover for holdups, drinking, assaults and vandalism.
"They have been very helpful in making people feel safe," said Pam Mack, vice president of community relations for the Columbia Association. "It's a definite plus."
And they could prove even more important if the Columbia Association follows through with plans to put more of its 3,000 acres of open space -- including tot lots and bicycle paths -- under a statute giving police authority to remove trespassers without association permission.
On Wednesday, association managers met with Chief James N. Robey to discuss plans to add more land to the 400 acres already covered by that statute.
"If our responsibilities in those areas are going to be expanded, we have to enforce it," said Lt. Dan Davis, head of the Special Operations Division. "All that parkland is more accessible to officers on bike."
The six regulars and six other officers involved in the bicycle program, all of whom volunteered, were trained during a weeklong course at the Baltimore County Police Department last spring.
Their training included tips on bicycle safety and how to take down a running suspect in a skid-slide of the bike.
The officers are equipped with a pack, handcuffs, a lightweight utility belt with a holster, a radio and other essentials.
Jennifer Horan, manager of the 1,500-member, Baltimore-based International Police Mountain Bike Association, said bicycle patrols have grown in popularity since 1988, when police in Seattle began using them to help control congested downtown streets.
"Unlike a car patrolman who has a window rolled up waiting for the next call, the bike patrolman can see, smell and hear everything going on around them," she said.
In Columbia, police say the bicycles offer an efficient way to patrol the new town's intricate network of pathways.
"All these are nooks and crannies and hiding places for some people," Lieutenant Davis said. "It's important for police to get into there. The bikes help us stay on top."
And there's a public relations aspect to the patrols as well. As they ride through Columbia, Ellicott City, Savage and North Laurel, the officers are a highly visible sign of police presence.
Tuesday afternoon, for example, Corporal Newnan, in blue shorts and short-sleeved shirt, pedaled through the parking log of Stevens Forest Apartments in Columbia's Oakland Mills village.
Children ran alongside and asked questions.
"You catch the clown yet?" several asked, referring to recent reports of a man dressed as a clown who residents say was chasing children two weeks ago.
"I haven't seen him, but you stay away from him, OK?" Corporal Newnan replied, changing the subject to bicycle helmet safety before deputizing the children with plastic junior police badges.
Earlier that day, he rode his high-performance Trek bicycle down pathways at Lake Kittamaqundi in Columbia's Town Center, bouncing over branches and rocks along the way.
It was still light outside, as people fished and jogged.
As the day came to an end, Corporal Newnan cruised through the Owen Brown village center, checking the doors of closed businesses to make sure they were locked.
He waved and smiled as he pedaled past a group of teen-agers eating pizza on a table outside the shopping center's Giant Food store -- but the smile faded 12 feet later when he caught a whiff of marijuana.
The officer hit the brakes and paused. By the time he made a U-turn and headed back, the youths were hustling away.
"Where are you all heading?" he asked. "Be sure to clean the trash you left off that table back there." Their nervous reaction showed that they'd be causing no more mischief for the next hour, at least.
Corporal Newnan rode off, still focused on the teens. "Some kids just don't have respect anymore," he said.