More than a joyride

Published 12:00 am Saturday, July 22, 2006

The following story is from a ride that writer George L. Jones took with the head of the Selma Bike Patrol Unit.

By George L. Jones

The Selma Times-Journal

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Selma Police Officer Carlos Jones had not been on the road two minutes before he made his first traffic stop of the day.

After flagging down a gold-colored, two-door car, he swung his right leg over his modified police bicycle and rode with all his weight on the left pedal for about 10 feet before dropping the kickstand and stopping in the middle of a mechanic shop parking lot.

Most people would think nothing of someone motoring along without a seat belt.

But Jones made it very clear – on several occasions throughout a hot Friday morning patrol – his job is to notice what most people would deem benign.

“I expected to find some drugs, but there weren’t any,” Jones said after the car pulled off.

Instead, he found a driver with no license and a switched tag, more than enough to issue a ticket.

Normally, the Selma Bike Patrol Unit doesn’t ride up and down the city’s streets during an entire 12-hour shift.

The bikes are strapped to the back of a mobile patrol unit – essentially a mini police station inside a Winnebago.

The officers observe various neighborhoods from the unit and pull out the bikes to provide the type of mobility not available in squad cars.

But Friday wasn’t a normal day.

Many of Selma’s citizens are still in the dark about what the bike patrol is, and Jones was more than happy to provide enlightenment.

Leader of the pack

After observing Jones in the field, he displays mannerisms that seem to surpass his age of 27 years.

Then bits of his lighthearted character start to show, and the only reminder he is a police officer is the duty belt around his waist.

As he wheels his bike around various parts of East Selma, he doesn’t go more than a block without someone yelling his name or stopping him to talk for a bit.

“This is what we do, we go and meet the people,” he said. “When I’m working, I’m looking for something different, something I haven’t seen before. Some guy (that doesn’t live in the neighborhood) may be trying to break into somebody’s house.”

His first stop was at an elderly lady’s house, whom by the way she talked with him, could have easily been mistaken for Jones’ grandmother.

Quickly after she handed over a glass of ice water, she pulled from a drawer and proudly showed off a pearl-handled pistol she bought for self-protection.

And so it was with most of the people Jones saw that morning. They treated him like an old friend, and almost all of them offered thanks and congratulations for the return of the bike patrol.

Having been with the Selma Police Department for five years, Jones was charged with leading the unit after its re-creation several months ago.

One of the most physically fit and personable officers on the force, Jones seemed a likely fit for the job.

He has a detailed knowledge of the people and houses on his patrol.

And for the most part, the city’s residents are happy to see him.

‘Hate the police’

For as many advantages as bikes provide in maneuverability, their grave downfall is vulnerability.

There are no doors, no glass and no loud sirens. Criminals that are bent on vengeance have their best opportunity when a police officer without a bulletproof vest is pedaling down a seemingly quiet street.

And they don’t mind unleashing a threat, whether real or imagined.

“It’s not like it used to be,” said Detective Harry Tubbs. “People don’t have any respect for the police anymore. And the crime in this city has gotten so bad. You do your job, and they’ll tell you how low down you are.”

Jones signaled a turn with a right arm that was lightly beaded with sweat, and suddenly he leaned on his hip and was headed down the crossing street.

He turned and gave a look that signaled a firm ‘No.’

“You don’t want to go down there,” Jones said. “That’s St. Phillip – AKA ‘Hate the Police.'”

The fact that there was almost a daily occurrence on the street in the police reports made it seem sensible to stay away.

But after some goading, the route eventually made its way back around to the area.

Shanty houses – several of them distribution centers for drugs – lined street after street.

“The police can kiss our ass” was one of the nicer things that was said.

Soon Jones was working on his second incident of the day. A car riding on a neighboring street violated the city’s noise ordinance with loud pipes and blaring music.

Within minutes, he radioed for help and found the car in front of a house about five minutes away.

“You didn’t even hear it, did you?” Jones asked.

He was right. For an untrained person, the senses pique to detect what is immediately around them but often fail to notice anything beyond that.

After a not-so-quiet conversation with four officers, the young man who owned the car was given a ticket for more than $300.

Jones had killed two birds with one stone. He prevented disturbances to the neighborhood’s residents, and he protected the young man from his inability to hear anything outside his vehicle.

There were responses to various other calls – a domestic dispute that turned out to be a misunderstanding, a complaint inside a business and a suspicious person outside a gas station.

The latter once again showed Jones’ knowledge of the area.

“I’ve never seen her in this neighborhood before, and that’s the point,” he said. “She could be carrying AIDS and giving it to a bunch of guys out here.”

‘What did you learn?’

Oddly enough, that was a question that took a good while after the patrol was over to answer.

The full effect of the morning didn’t hit until the world was viewed through a civilian’s eyes once again.

As far as stress level, bike cops probably have it a lot easier than regular patrol officers. A lot of their work involves surveillance.

But there is no gray line between that and the other aspect of the job. When they’re not observing things from a distance, they are face-to-face and inside the homes of the people they are sworn to protect.

Police enforcement becomes more of a face than just a badge and gun.

Make no mistake about it, though, they have all the authority of any other officer.

And honestly, who would you rather run from – someone climbing out of an air-conditioned car or someone that can pedal up hills for hours at a time?

“I have the easiest job in the world. I ride around all day in the breeze,” Jones said with a coy smile. “This job has its perks, but it has its challenges. Like I said, we’re out here with the people. You can’t ride in between alleys or go up to people on the sidewalk in a car. Folks see us out here, and they appreciate it.”