To hear Los Angeles Police Sgt. James Gordon tell it, a cop can get awfully lonely working a beat from behind the wheel of a squad car.
"I worked patrol a long time and I never had people talk to me," said Gordon, a policeman for eight years. "You are in a bubble in that car."
This month, Gordon and several of his fellow officers at the Los Angeles Police Department's Harbor Division in San Pedro left their cars behind and began patroling on bicycles.
Decked out in the latest cyclist garb and riding $500, specially equipped mountain bikes, the officers fanned out into the community, pedaling down streets and alleys, sneaking up on possible troublemakers and mingling with merchants and children.
Gordon, who oversees the bike patrol, said he no longer has a problem meeting people. "It's just like the old foot beats," he said.
The Harbor Division officers are not the only pedaling cops. In recent months, police in Gardena also started a bike patrol to fight crime and get closer to the community.
And in Lennox, sheriff's deputies on bikes have been assigned since October to a particularly bad neighborhood where open drug dealing is a serious problem.
Sheriff's Lt. Lawrence Schwartz said some suspects have been flabbergasted by the tactic.
"I have talked to some of the people once they have been brought to jail," Schwartz said. "When a deputy rode up on a bicycle, they were startled."
Bikes are not new to police work. For instance, Seattle police have been using bike patrols since 1987.
Closer to home, police in Hermosa Beach, Manhattan Beach and Redondo Beach have used bikes for several years to patrol congested areas near the beach during busy summer months.
There is little doubt, however, that bikes are growing in popularity with local law enforcement agencies. In the last 18 months alone, at least six of the LAPD's 18 divisions have started bike patrols.
"I've worked in almost every division in the city," Gordon said. "And I tell you, bikes are the hottest thing going right now."
LAPD Lt. Dan Koenig, assigned to the department's office of operations, said the increase in bike patrols can be partly attributed to an increase in officers. The LAPD's ranks have grown by 1,500 officers in the past two years, he said, making personnel available for the patrols.
Another reason for the growing number of bike patrols has been the development of rugged mountain bikes and improved safety gear, Koenig and others said. For police departments looking for better ways to patrol congested urban areas, bikes have now become an option.
"They can cover a bigger area in a quicker time and are more silent in their approach," said LAPD Harbor Division Capt. Richard Bonneau. "So they can sneak up on crimes in progress."
Gardena police started letting officers hop a bike in September after 15 mountain bikes were donated to the department by a local businessman, said Lt. Jeff Finley.
Although bike patrols do not operate on a daily basis, officers have used bikes for a variety of purposes, including patroling the city's business areas and streets that become clogged when parents drop their children off at school and pick them up.
In the harbor area, where a bike patrol operates on most weekdays, seven officers were given 16 hours of special training. They were taught everything from how to fix a flat tire to how to jump curbs on the 21-speed bikes, which were paid for by a local police booster group.
During the Christmas season, the bike patrol was assigned to local shopping districts. Later, the bikes will be used in areas with narcotics activity or high burglary and auto theft rates, police said.
In Lennox, Schwartz said a bike patrol was started in October to crack down on drug dealing along Inglewood Avenue. Although no money had been allocated for the patrol, four bikes were donated by businesses and two others were obtained from unclaimed property accumulated by the department.
Schwartz said three deputies are assigned full time to the detail. Two ride bikes, and the third backs them up in a squad car. "We wanted it to be a real law enforcement, nuts-and-bolts operation, not just a community relations approach," he said.
Since the patrol was launched, crime in the area has been reduced significantly, Schwartz said.