Riding Along with the Bike Patrol

WEST SIDE – The first thing you’re likely to notice about Officer Ed Sutton’s black-and-white is that it’s got only two wheels and runs on pedal power.

By Marc S. Posner
Daily Pilot
It’s quite likely I’ve never worked harder for a story (though there was that unplanned trip to Arizona after a full day at work) than this one. It certainly was the most-unique ride along I ever had.

The second comes in the form of hellos and smiles from those he passes as he propels the 21-speed Raleigh bicycle along his patrol route.

That positive reaction is in stark contrast to the way many police officers feel they’re perceived by members of the community – especially in areas such as Costa Mesa’s West Side because members of immigrant communities often are reluctant to interact with police.

Spend a day tooling around town with Sutton, and it becomes evident that he and other members of the bike patrol are breaking down some of those barriers.

For Sutton – who spent his 25th anniversary with the Costa Mesa Police Department on Tuesday riding along city streets, alleys and parks – the affirmations keep the job fresh.

“I like the sense of community and the acceptance you get,” said Sutton, who serves as the administrator of the bicycle program based out of the West Side Substation on 18th Street. “You can get cold and burned out after 25 years, or you can have a sense of community.

“I’m a firm believer that I’m out here to serve the people of this town,” said Sutton, himself a Costa Mesa resident. “I’m out there among them. It sounds corny, but that’s the way I feel.”

Being out there involves a variety of tasks – mainly being highly visible and enforcing city code violations such as people rummaging through trash cans or begging for money.

Almost all the action on the bicycle patrol is generated by the officers involved, not in response to radio calls from dispatchers.

Such was the case when Sutton and Officer Darell Freeman, his partner for the day, peered in on a group of men drinking in a trash-dumpster enclosure hidden in the back of a business complex near 19th Street and Monrovia Avenue.

Peeking around the corner of the building, Sutton waited for one of the six men to take a swig from an alcohol bottle, then he and Freeman moved in, investigating the men for drinking in public and trespassing.

A couple of the transients — including one named Sylvester and another named Jerry — called Sutton by name. He knew them as well.

Clad in only shorts and a tan corduroy sport coat that was a size or two too small, Jerry needed the use of Sutton’s arm to keep his balance at times during the investigation.

Jerry’s hand clinched a salt shaker while the bottle he left behind emptied when one of his friends, Mario, knocked it over as he walked to Freeman as part of a sobriety test.

Jerry and Mario, who were arrested on suspicion of public intoxication, were taken by another officer to the substation where Freeman stored his bicycle and then drove the two to the city’s jail.

“Some day I’ll come home,” Jerry said among the frequent references to Vietnam he made during the drive up the Costa Mesa (55) Freeway and during the booking process.

As a jailer counted a stack of cash and coins that totaled $3,415.99, Jerry revealed that he’s got no reason to pull things together now, but said he’d be ready if his country needs his service again.

At lunch, Freeman tells Sutton about Jerry’s large bankroll. And Sutton speculates that the out-of-work construction man sold his truck for cash.

With the McDonalds lunch still settling in, Sutton and Freeman decide to head for Shalimar Drive, where some residents have renewed their complaints of drug dealing in the street.

Sutton opts to head in from one side while Freeman takes the other in hopes of catching someone in the act.

“A lot of people don’t see you coming,” Freeman explained earlier in the ride. “And if they’re doing something wrong, by the time they see you, it’s usually a bit too late.”

Sutton’s plan apparently proved that theory correct on Tuesday afternoon.

As Freeman turned west onto Shalimar from Pomona Avenue, he spotted two men on bicycles talking to the driver of a while Chevy pickup that had stopped in the roadway.

“You don’t have a bicycle license,” Freeman told one of the bicyclists, ordering him to come over for a chat.

The young man complied while the other biker and the driver of the truck decided to split.

Sutton, riding east on Shalimar from Wallace Avenue, moved in front of the truck, motioning for the driver to pull over.

Within minutes, the other bicyclist returned and the officers began to sort through their stories individually.

During the investigation, Sutton discovered a large plastic bag containing what appeared to be illegal drugs in the pocket of the Chevy’s driver.

The man was later identified as Alberto Angeles, 20, of Costa Mesa. The bag’s contents later were determined to be nine bindles of rock cocaine and methamphetamines — with a total weight of 14.8 grams.

Angeles was arrested on suspicion of possession of illegal drugs for sale, Freeman said.

The current bicycle program, which now includes patrols in the parking areas at South Coast Plaza as well as those out of the West Side Substation, was started a few years ago when department officials were seeking a better way to keep an eye on the annual Fish Fry carnival.

“To me this is a good cross between the old beat cop that everybody wants to go back to … and the cop in a car,” Sutton said. “You’re just more in it. You’re not isolated. When you take the car away, you take away the barrier.”

It’s that type of attitude toward what’s often called “community policing” and efforts such as those made by Freeman and Sutton, that landed the department a grant from Orange County Together, a group designed to bolster such efforts, Lt. Alan Kent said last week.

The grant was used along with donations from West Side residents to buy a new $600 bicycle with heavy, shock-absorbing forks and a durable aluminum frame. It’s outfitted with lights and a bag that stores such necessities as a ticket book and blank report forms.

The bicycle will be put into service with the four-year-old Raleighs that are used by eight officers working out of the 18th Street substation. The new bike’s smaller frame will give more members of the department an opportunity to hit the pedal patrol.

First, they must complete eight hours of training, that teaches skills such as how to fall without getting injured, Sutton said.

“A lot of times,” Sutton said, explaining the importance of that education, “we’ll actually jump off the bike to grab people.”

While the average shift normally isn’t that exciting, Sutton or one of the other 20 or so trained officers, usually patrol the 1.5-square-mile area by bicycle twice each week.

The 10-hour shifts vary, sometimes during the day, other times at night, Sutton said.

With frequent stops, and often at speeds just high enough for officers to keep their balance, the ride itself isn’t as physically demanding as the lengthy shift would indicate.

Even under a warm, blue sky, Sutton and Freeman seldom utilized their water bottles.

That’s not to say they can’t crank it into high gear.

Both officers said they like to turn the trek from the scene of an arrest back to the substation into a race against the patrol cars ferrying the prisoner. They boasted about doing it frequently, but thanks to lingering investigations at arrest scenes on Tuesday, they didn’t have the opportunity to prove it.