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Street Patrol Finds Power in the Pedal

August 29, 1993|By MARY HELEN BERG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SOUTHEAST AREA — Jumping curbs and swerving between parked cars, five Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies on mountain bikes raced through a parking lot in Walnut Park to surround a red truck filled with members of one of South Los Angeles' largest Latino gangs.

The four gang members, who had just left a bar known for drug transactions, were ordered out of the truck. After searching the teen-agers and the car for drugs and weapons, the officers confiscated three fake identification cards. They asked some questions, and told the youths to be careful and to be on their way.

No tickets were issued and no arrests were made. But the incident exemplifies the kind of police work that has made the patrol popular with residents in the unincorporated county area of Walnut Park.

The team has been so well-received by the community since its formation in March that four deputies will be added in October.

"I think they are more effective than the patrol cars," said Jose Romo, 25, a Walnut Park native and board member of the area's community association. "The bike patrols are out on the street and in the back alleys. It seems like the patrol cars are just driving around. The bike patrols are looking for something to do."

The county patrol is one of several bike units in Long Beach and the Southeast area. In Long Beach, six officers are assigned to cruise the downtown area on bikes.

The city of Vernon has a two-member unit that began in May, 1992. South Gate started a bike patrol last year and initiated a certified patrol--one that is specifically trained in bike patrol techniques--this May.

South Gate's 12 bike officers rotate the patrol, putting two to four bikes on the street four days each week.

"The public loves it," said South Gate Lt. Russell Beecher.

The bike patrol is effective because officers are not as isolated as those in squad cars nor as immobile as those on foot patrol, Beecher added.

Pedaling through the unincorporated areas of Willowbrook, Florence, Walnut Park and part of Rancho Dominguez has given the six county deputies an unobstructed view of community problems. The team was recently hired for a 20-hour-a-week pilot program in Lynwood.

The unit, backed up by a patrol car, rolls slowly down empty streets and crowded sidewalks, through residential areas and business districts, nimbly pulling in and out of back alleys and parking lots.

The deputies' informal uniforms of shorts and polo shirts, and their habit of stopping to chat with residents makes them less intimidating than squad car officers, residents say. Their mountain bikes also allow them to approach suspects unnoticed when patrol cars cannot.

The team meets regularly with local leaders to discuss the neighborhood's law enforcement priorities, covering everything from narcotics busts to parking tickets.

In Walnut Park, a community of about 15,000, residents asked the deputies to concentrate on illegal street vendors whose trade they say poses a health risk. When the team began targeting vendors about three months ago, they made 60 to 80 arrests each month. On a recent weekend, only three illegal vendors were found.

Despite the county bike patrol's success and popularity, its future is tenuous, said Capt. Carole Freeman, who formed the team.

The county has no budget specifically for the program, which was started when the Firestone and Lynwood sheriff's facilities merged and there was an opportunity to shift personnel. Each fully equipped bike costs about $1,000. Salaries and benefits for six officers bring the price tag for the team to more than $600,000, she said.

"I have no budget to support the program and if I have other priorities, I would have to redeploy the bike team to take care of that," Freeman said.

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