For criminals who consider preying on cars or customers at South Coast Plaza, the wheels of justice may now come in sets of two.
Costa Mesa police assigned to patrol the congested parking lot of the 200-store mall are more often doing so astride bicycles than in patrol cars. It is an approach, says Sgt. Gary McErlin, that is better suited to the surroundings.
"Patrolling the lot on a bike takes about one-tenth the time it does to do it in a car, because you can cut between cars," said McErlin, coordinator of the bike program. "Also, on a bike you sit higher than you do in a car, so they can see around better. You can also go up in a parking structure pretty quickly to hide yourself, or you can make yourself very visible, whichever you need."
When the officers are visible, decked out in golf-style shirts, nylon gear, shorts and sneakers, they also seem to be more accessible to customers, McErlin said. "It's nice. I've noticed people are more willing to come up and ask questions. They seem more comfortable talking to us."
McErlin said the two specially designed bikes used at the mall are probably just the beginning of the department's move to two-wheel tactics, which could prove effective patrolling other malls and large apartment complex areas. But any kind of expansion would have to wait until brighter budget days or, like the South Coast Plaza bikes, depend on private funds.
Contributions from the mall's management and five largest merchants, along with sizable discounts from the Boston Bicycle Co., led to the purchase of the black-and-white, Raleigh USA Chill bikes that are used at the Plaza. McErlin said the bike patrols are limited so far to weekends and, as staffing permits, an occasional weekday.
Boston Bicycle's owner, Tony Gelinas, said he outfitted the bikes with high-power lights, special grips, rear racks and dual purpose tires that can hold up on asphalt or during off-road riding.
"These are bikes Raleigh designs for police work, so they're pretty durable already," said Gelinas, who has been offering free repairs and training to officers.
The move by police toward bicycles was begun by the Seattle Police Department in 1987, and since then, many agencies around the country have followed suit. A national organization of bicycle law enforcement has begun, and a state certification program is being prepared for California police. In Orange County, bike patrols have been set up by agencies in Buena Park, Dana Point, La Palma and Seal Beach.
"It's really come full circle now," McErlin said. "First they were on foot, and then police were eventually in cars, and now they are scaling down to bikes because of congestion and to get more contact with the streets. It's even more environmental."