Shifting gears on police

Phil Ferolito, Yakima Herald, November 5, 2018

Photo:  Yakima police officers Einar Agledal, left, and Jeff Ely wait at the corner of East Yakima Avenue and First Street while patrolling downtown on bicycles on Friday, Nov. 2, 2018, in Yakima, Wash. (Evan Abell, Yakima Herald-Republic)

YAKIMA, Wash. – Yakima police Officer Jeff Ely clearly recalls his first day on bicycle patrol.

It was summer 2015, and he and fellow officer Mark Williams were pedaling east on Chestnut Avenue near Fourth Street when they spotted a group of men tucked away from the street, smoking a meth pipe.

Ely and Williams arrested them on drug charges. Two of them were wanted on warrants, he recalled.

They may not have spotted the group had they been in a patrol car, Ely said.

“You can actually see and hear so much better than when you’re in a patrol car,” he said of being on a bicycle. “Even with the windows down, you can’t hear and see quite as good as you can on bikes.”

Bicycle patrols are nothing new to Yakima. They’re often used downtown on summer weekends and in the Franklin Park area during music festivals and other big community events. Some officers even walk beats during those events or on weekends.

But interim Chief Gary Jones wants to put more officers on bikes, and not just when downtown tasting rooms, restaurants and theaters are busy.

He hopes to integrate bicycle patrols with the department’s street crime unit because cops on bikes are more mobile in some situations, can peer into areas difficult to see from squad cars and are less noticeable.

As soon as the 144-officer department gets back to full strength, there will be more officers on bicycles helping the task force tackle drug, prostitution and gang crime, said Jones, who was among the first bicycle cops when the program began in 1988.

“Even though you’re in full uniform, you’re kind of undetected,” Jones said. “In street crime, you can be in a lot of areas and see what’s going on.”

Staffing issues

Bicycle patrols are mostly conducted by officers willing to work overtime. The program’s cost is covered by a four-year, $50,000 renewable federal grant.

The department is down 14 officers, said Capt. Jay Seely.

“First order of business for us is to continue our recruiting efforts to get more officers in here,” he said.

The department is making progress. Six officers are now in training and others who are on family medical leave or recovering from an injury are expected to return soon, Jones said.

Once staffing is back to normal levels, more of the federal money can be used on dedicated bicycle patrols, said Seely, who administers the grant.

Foot patrols are less likely to be expanded because beats are large and those walking aren’t as mobile as those on bicycles, Jones said.

Embracing community

Ely said the biggest advantage of bicycle patrols is freedom to probe neighborhoods without being distracted by countless calls.

“I would say the big thing with our department is we are so busy with radio calls — we’re constantly going call to call to call,” he said. “On a bike, your sole purpose is rolling through the neighborhood. You have time to talk to folks and find out what the problems are. You’re not tied to the radio as much as we are in a patrol car.”

Jones said the department can’t continue going call to call and expect to make a real difference in deterring crime. Free from the burden of daily calls, bicycle officers will be able to focus on long-term cases while getting a better inside look into communities, he said.

Part of the plan also involves bicycle police talking to people about ways to improve safety and reduce property crime — for example, removing shrubs where criminals can hide and installing lights or cameras, Jones said.

“It’s not just making arrests,” he said. “It’s looking at community problems and devising strategies to solve them.”

That type of commitment from police would bolster trust among residents in gang-torn neighborhoods where crime is high, said Ester Huey, former longtime director of the Henry Beauchamp Community Center in southeast Yakima.

Officers regularly patrolling on bicycles stand a better change of understanding the community’s norms and culture, she said.

“These bicycle officers could monitor those norms, become familiar with those norms and learn how to interact with the community,” she said. “Not just coming into the community when a crime happens, but to come into the community and be a part of the community.”

Huey points to a time in the mid-1990s when bicycle patrols were frequent and police participated in youth sporting events.

“They were known on a first-name basis and they knew the residents on a first-name basis,” she said. “They knew the kids, and it really helped decrease some of the gang activity, some of the drug activity in these areas. It was an excellent partnership.”

At the Yakima Police Activities League in northeast Yakima, bicycle patrols helped deter drug activity last summer at the adjoining Miller Park and kept homeless people from sleeping in the doorway, said Joe Willis, the center’s executive director.

But when the patrols ended in late summer, the problems returned, he said.

“If they know no one is going to come and check up on them it’s just a free-for-all,” Willis said. “If you were a parent, would you want to drop off your kid with someone wandering around looking suspicious? I wouldn’t.”

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