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Officer Bike Ride: Making Community-Oriented Policing a Reality

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Louis Reyes and Leo Rey: Officer Bike Ride
Officer Louis Reyes and Officer Leo Rey patrolling the L.A. River || Photo by: Lucy Guanuna

It’s around 9 a.m. and I was 30 minutes into my bike ride on the L.A. River with two officers from LAPD’s Northeast Division, when we heard a loud almost demented laugh coming from behind the trees further down the path.

We biked past the trees and saw a young man running towards the river with two bikes in his hand, still laughing. “Are you okay? What’s going on?” asked one of the officers and the guy immediately switched his demeanor. He looked nervous and started pointing in the direction of the main highway, still visible from the bike path, and he started yelling, “They hit me! They’re over there!”

“Why do you have two bikes?” asked one of the officers. I stood back as they talked to the guy, who was still laughing and shifting around nervously. Less than a minute later, a patrol car came rushing down the street, lights on, towards the river. The guy was running, trying to escape the patrol car, because he had just stolen somebody’s keys and “found” the bikes somewhere along the way.

People on the bike path stared as they cycled by while the officers who arrived in the patrol car discussed with the owner of the keys whether or not he wanted to press charges. As the two officers and I biked away, the guy was in handcuffs awaiting his fate, facing the river.

For years the L.A. River has existed on the fringes of society, a place shrouded in isolation and welcoming only to those who didn’t want to be seen - to use or sell drugs, rob and burglarize or to elude the police during pursuits.

L.A. River: Officer Bike Ride
L.A. River || Photo by: Lucy Guanuna

But given the river’s sustained solitude, it has also been a place where people have gone to seek refuge. The river provided a place to sleep for those who found L.A.’s busy streets uninviting and also provided a place for young artists to express their creativity when underfunded schools didn’t offer them the space or tools needed. And for low income and homeless individuals for whom food is not easily accessible, the river’s different varieties of fish have also provided sustenance. 

As revitalization projects transform the river, it has brought with it a new population of recreational users who are now entering a space that has long been marginalized and they have become targets of crime that has long-existed and continues to increase. Despite the skyrocketing housing prices in the Northeast’s river-adjacent neighborhoods and millions of dollars spent to restore the Northeast’s portion of the river, according to LAPD data, property crime has increased by 25% from 2014 to 2016, especially near the river’s recreational zones where officers said incidences of property theft are rampant.

To serve the needs of both communities and bring crime rates down, LAPD’s Northeast Division officers are moving away from traditional policing methods by engaging the public through events such as town hall meetings that open up dialogue about issues within the community and Cafecito con el Capitan (Coffee with the Captain) which gives members of the Spanish-speaking community - typically wary of police - an opportunity to have a conversation with the department’s captain. This move towards community-oriented policing sets the Northeast Division apart at a time when the recent high-profile police shootings of unarmed black men across the U.S. have brought the LAPD under scrutiny for what critics say is a pattern of excessive use of force.

In one of their many moves towards community-oriented policing, Northeast Division senior lead officers Louis Reyes and Leo Rey held their first community bike ride in April. They took more than 30 people, including children, on a ride along the L.A. River from Egret Park in Elysian Valley to John Ferraro Athletic Fields in Griffith Park. They hoped the bike ride would not only encourage more people to use the river, but would also help improve relations between the police department and the community they serve.

Louis Reyes and Leo Rey: Officer Bike Ride (2)
Louis Reyes (left) and Leo Rey (right) || Photo by: Lucy Guanuna

“We wanted people to come out here and express their thoughts and concerns and get more comfortable with us and more comfortable with using the river,” said Rey as we rode along the river near Glassell Park. “The more people use the bike path, the less crime will happen.”

They aim to go beyond the traditional role of enforcing the law to involving the community in getting the police job done, which in turn, makes their job easier. The Northeast Division has a small force. Apart from specialized units, including the gang and bike units, the department has 5 to 8 patrol cars serving an area that’s roughly 29 square miles with a population of about 250,000 people.

“We want to be as a efficient as possible, so we’re trying to build a better link to the community so that they could be our eyes and ears for us when we aren’t there,” said Reyes.

“We don’t want people to fear or distrust us. We want them to be able to call us if they need help,” said Rey.

The two senior lead officers and I were on the bike path headed south towards Dodger Stadium. It was early and the air was still crisp. Reyes and Rey greeted everybody that walked and biked by with a hearty “good morning”. 

“We have bike patrol on the river to make sure it’s safe, but we’re mostly here to build a relationship with the community. It's easier to do on a bike than a patrol car. We can actually stop and talk to people and get to know them,” said Rey.

While biking in the Elysian Valley portion of the Glendale Narrows, we passed sections of tall vegetation that in some areas looked like overgrown bushes and in others looked like small impenetrable forests. A bird sunbathed on a rock while a duck floated down the river dipping his head intermittently for food.

As we neared Marsh Park, Rey pointed to a chainlink fence underneath a bridge. He said he saw about 6 fish hung there by a group of homeless folks that lived nearby. Many of the fish had already been eaten down to the bone. 

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“A lot of people come here to fish for carp. They call them Tijuana trout because people put tortillas and masa on their lines,” said Rey laughing. “We once saw a homeless man drop a boulder on a fish to kill it because they’re huge, they don’t die,” Rey said.

Fishing in the L.A. River is not new and sustained entire communities prior to the rivers channelization in 1938, but only in the last century was fishing limited to those carrying a fishing license. Those that fish without a license risk getting slapped with a $350 fine by park rangers.

We biked passed what looked like an old oil derrick and there was a large tarp and wooden slats closing in the bottom portion of it. They said a man lives there. “He is from El Salvador and is dying of aids,” said Reyes. “He said he lives there because he has 350 days of sunshine a year, why be anywhere else? He said he doesn't want to infect anyone, so he stays there alone.”

The Northeast Division formed a homeless unit in 2015 that has partnered with the Department of Mental Health and local homeless services organizations to do outreach in the area and try to connect the homeless with housing and services.

“We don’t want to hassle people who are struggling to live and find somewhere to sleep, we want to arrest the criminals that are terrorizing the community, like people with guns and burglars and robbers,” said Reyes.

Since January of this year, there have been no incidences of rape or murder near the river, but the officers are quick to point out the numerous cases of theft, which they said happens almost everyday. “People get robbed on the bike path, but more often, people get their property stolen from their vehicles. A lot of people leave their doors unlocked and their property in plain view,” said Reyes.

“There’s a lot of good communities down here, a lot of good people. But people should be careful. They shouldn’t come to the river alone and should always lock their car doors,” said Reyes.

We get to the end of the bike path where it is cut off by the 5 freeway, near where the 5 and 110 freeways intersect. We’ve left behind the small urban oasis of the Glendale Narrows and there are concrete walls everywhere. Looking up, the freeways go in every direction, an architectural wonder, with splashes of color from the graffiti, some of which look like they have been there for ages and others, since yesterday.

On the side of the 5 freeway overpass, Reyes points to some graffiti. “They’re called heaven spots and are painted by graffiti writers who rappel off the sides of freeways,” said Reyes. The 5 freeway overpass is at least 3 stories high and Reyes said a graffiti writer once fell from the overpass into the river while painting and broke both of her legs. 

Graffiti Along 5 Freeway: Officer Bike Ride
Graffiti "heaven spots" on 5 freeway overpass || Photo by: Lucy Guanuna 

We took a winding cement staircase that got us to a path that leads towards Elysian Park. Before getting on the path, Rey points towards the Lincoln Heights Jail across the river.

The 229,000-square-foot, Art Deco structure once housed Al Capone and those arrested during the zoot suit riots. Since it stopped housing inmates, the building has been used as a filming location for numerous blockbuster films. With its windows broken and walls covered almost top to bottom in graffiti, it stands currently unused.

“With all the homeless people in the area, the city should turn the building into a shelter,” said Rey, referring to the more than 800 homeless who live in the Northeast area, according to recent estimates.  

The city recently put out a call for ideas to convert the Lincoln Heights Jail while suggesting a few ideas themselves which included a hotel, live/work lofts and a tech office, but not a homeless shelter.

As we biked to the top of the hill at Elysian Park, the officers took me on a detour that took us up a dirt trail that lead into the brush. There, in the brush, were thousands of used condoms and condom wrappers in the dirt.

Condoms in Elysian Park: Officer Bike Ride
Used condoms and condom wrappers at cruising spot in Elysian Park || Photo by: Lucy Guanuna

Reyes said it was a cruising spot for gay males and although officers patrol the area and make arrests for lewd conduct regularly, the activity persists. This cruising spot, like many others in Los Angeles, have been around for decades and have been an integral part of the local gay community, offering a space where people can find partners willing to engage in sexual activity.

“Regardless of what people want to do, the city really needs to put money into cleaning the condoms up. We don’t want kids or dogs coming and picking them up and thinking they are balloons,” said Rey, pointing down the hill at the numerous condoms that look like confetti spread out in the dirt.

We got back on our route and headed towards what Reyes was calling some seriously rewarding views. It was getting hotter as the day wore on and I was in need of a rewarding view and a break.

We biked onto the Park Row Bridge, over the 110 freeway. Rey and Reyes stopped and pointed to the left and there was the view of downtown, the city’s skyscrapers flanked by two hills. On the right was a view of the river and the San Gabriel Mountains.

And after 6 miles of riding, I watched the two officers take in the view. I was surprised by the poetic inclination of the two officers who could appreciate this often overlooked urban vista, but was even more surprised by the relationships these officers had developed with the people within their communities, especially those that are the most vulnerable.

At a time when police forces across the U.S. are being militarized and the fear of police within communities of color grow, these two officers have committed themselves to making community-oriented policing a reality. And for those two, to meet local residents on their community bike ride is just as important as meeting those who sleep in the rivers brush.

View of Downtown from Park Row Bridge: Officer Bike Ride
View of Downtown from Park Row Bridge || Photo by: Lucy Guanuna 

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