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Within the first hour of its first street patrol, the North Park Bike Team received its first call over the radio. A group of cyclists was riding around North Park without any headlights.
“I was embarrassed,” said San Diego Police Sgt. Nick Borrelli, who oversees the unit. “It was us.”
Their bicycles had headlights — they just didn’t work. They came from a stockpile used by beach teams, where the salty air and gritty sand had already taken their toll. Pieces were literally falling off the bicycles as officers rode them, Borrelli said, and the department couldn’t afford to fix them.
Even with the bicycles in disrepair, though, police pushed forward with the new unit last September to address rising crime in North Park. As new businesses attracted more people there, police noticed a growing number of victims, too.
No statistic got more attention more than this: Between January and September last year, North Park had the highest number of violent crimes of any neighborhood in San Diego. It had more than Pacific Beach and East Village, where violent crime has happened the most in recent years.
The spike in North Park was mainly driven by more cases involving aggravated assault, a less serious offense than murder, rape and robbery, which also fall under the category of violent crime. Police reported 149 cases of aggravated assault in North Park last year, a 57 percent increase from 2009.
Violent crime peaked before police added the bike team to North Park, but it’s declined even more sharply since their patrols began. Upon learning about the team’s logistic issues, a private donor also paid for new bicycles, helmets and even working headlights.
We sat down with Borelli to talk about the role of bike teams, when the beer muscles come out in North Park and whether the unit’s been so effective that it’s no longer needed.
What is it about bikes that helps so much?
Crooks know what our cars look and sound like. When you’re on a bike, they can’t see or hear you coming. You can sneak up on them. And we found that out right away in the first week. People had never seen us out there and we were sneaking up on people doing all kinds of stuff — drinking in cars, doing drugs in cars. They just didn’t expect to see bikes.
Besides the statistics, how do you measure whether you’re having an impact?
We spend a lot of our time between 30th and El Cajon Boulevard and 30th and University Avenue. We have quite a few bars and restaurants in the area. They have our cell phone numbers so if a bouncer is having an issue, they call us and say come and help us out. They rely on us.
A lot of these assaults are drunken fights, unfortunately. Because of all the new bars that are out there, people are having cocktails and at the end of the night, for whatever reason, the beer muscles come out and fights start. When you see police officers there, which weren’t there before, you’re less likely to fight.
Do you attribute the rise in violent crime to the area’s growing bar scene?
Whenever you get more people, you’re going to have more victims or chances to become a victim. The crooks know what’s going on and they see all these cars they can steal or these drunken people they can rob. All the new business brought a lot of people in and with a lot of people you’re going to bring in that bad element, too.
How are the types of calls you respond to different?
We’re out there being proactive. Some people want to spend as little money as possible, so they show up and sit and party in their cars. We get a lot of complaints from the side streets because these people are partying ahead of time and then throwing all their garbage on peoples’ lawns. But those are the type of people we’re catching. We’re trying to deter that and we’re letting people know that it’s a several hundred dollar fine for having a cocktail in a car.
What other types of crime are you targeting? That neighborhood has prostitution, gangs, the bar scene and house parties. Which area are you trying to slice into?
On Wednesdays and Thursdays, we spend more of our time up on El Cajon Boulevard with the prostitutes. Obviously we can’t work undercover, but sometimes we just follow them around on our bikes and make it so uncomfortable for them that they leave. They’re not going to get any business with a police officer chasing them around. On Friday and Saturday nights, we spend most of our time at the restaurants and bars. Most of the stuff we deal with is misdemeanors. Drinking in cars, drunk in public.
(I show Borrelli the graphic to the right, which illustrates the number of aggravated assaults in North Park each quarter since 2008.) Since the number of aggravated assaults has gone down recently, why does the neighborhood still need the bike team?
We’re making a difference. I think if you talk to Todd Gloria and ask him to make it go away and he would say no way. He would fight until the end to keep the bike team. He’s the councilman up there and he’s seen the difference that we’ve made. Talk to all the businesses and they would fight to keep us there, too.
I ask because the city’s facing a budget deficit this year and smaller programs are sometimes considered for cuts. I’m curious if you’re concerned at all or if there are any discussions about this unit being dissolved.
That’s always on our mind because July 1 is coming up and the money’s going to be tight and we could be one of the first teams cut. We’re one of the newest bike teams and they could say we just got to put you somewhere else.
I try not to think about it because I have no power or control over that. It’s all done at the captain or chief’s level, so I just take one day at a time and go out there and do the best I can. If it happens, I had a great run. If it doesn’t, great. I get to keep having fun out there and continue with the bike team.