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DOWNTOWN : Police Turning to Pedal Power

October 25, 1992|IRIS YOKOI

These days, the screech of bicycle tires is just as likely to signal the approach of police officers as is the wail of a siren.

A team of nine officers now patrols the Downtown area on bicycles in an attempt to curb crime, especially panhandling. Wearing shorts, protective helmets and weapons belts, the officers pedal mountain bikes through the crowded streets, keeping an eye out for aggressive beggars and unsolicited window-washers bothering merchants and customers.

Although a state law prohibiting begging was recently overturned by a federal district court, the city attorney's office has determined that Los Angeles' panhandling laws still allow officers to ticket or arrest aggressive individuals who hound people for money, according to police officials.

Individuals who wash car windows and then demand money can also be arrested for soliciting money in a threatening manner, said Lt. Stan Ludwig.

The bike patrols began two months ago in Downtown at the behest of Garment District merchants who were so tired of panhandlers bothering customers and employees that they donated $7,000 to pay for the nine bicycles.

Two bike officers have been patrolling the Flower Market area around 7th and 8th streets for seven months. Police officials have agreed to put seven more foot patrol officers on bikes.

Although merchants paid for the bicycles, the officers go beyond the California Mart area and patrol most of Downtown, Ludwig said. Bike patrols are also used in the Newton, Hollywood and Devonshire bureaus, Ludwig said.

The bicycles not only provide "greater range and mobility" through the narrow and congested downtown streets, they allow officers to interact more effectively with the community, Ludwig said.

"The business owners love us," said Officer Pete Benavides. "Every day, I hear something positive from them."

Business owners and officers say the officers' presence has made a difference, decreasing panhandling and crime in general, said Carol Schatz, vice president of the Central City Assn., a business organization.

Business owners in nearby areas, including Little Tokyo, have also clamored for bike patrols, but staffing is limited, police officials said. At a recent community meeting in Little Tokyo, Officer Darryl Vest told business owners he hoped to get a couple of bike officers in that area around Christmas. "We put as many as we can afford on bikes," said Ludwig. "I'd love to have about 10 more officers on bikes. It's great."

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