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June 9th, 2004 Nick Budnick | News Stories
 

Pedaling a New Image

Bike cops out to win "hearts and minds" in North Portland.

     
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Bike cops, long a fixture in Old Town, are now pedaling north.
IMAGE: MARTINTHIEL.COM
Two Portland cops pass a North Portland convenience store as a young African-American man strides out. Given recent events, they could expect a glare as they pass by. Instead, however, they get an appreciative laugh.

"Hey, you guys got bikes now," says the man, dressed in matching black New York Yankees regalia. "Good job!"

A recent pedal-along showed that a new cop bike detail run out of North Precinct--designed to make friends, not busts -- is working.

"There are actually people waving at us with all five fingers now," says Sgt. Frank Gorgone.

Last Friday afternoon, Gorgone and three fellow Portland officers donned yellow-and-black uniforms and hauled four black Fuji mountain bikes out of the shed behind North Precinct. They took to the streets in two teams, a reporter following along with Gorgone and his partner, 12-year veteran Kathy Pahlke.

Bike cops, or "bumblebees," are familiar to protesters and downtown denizens, but they haven't had a presence in North Portland since 1997.

Last week, as Gorgone and Pahlke rode through St. Johns Park and out into the neighborhood beyond, a white guy on a skateboard comes to a halt to let them pass, a wry smile on his face as we slowly pedal by.

It's not clear what's more humorous to observers: cops on bikes, the leisurely pace, or the sight of our doughy middle-aged bodies ("I'm hoping to pare down to a rippling 200 pounds," jokes the 5-foot-7 Gorgone).

If our pace does not bring Lance Armstrong to mind, that only helps the month-old mission: to show North Portland residents that cops are people, too.

Gorgone, a Boston-bred cop, says his push for the detail was sparked by a call to the Pier Park apartment complex where 200 hostile residents surrounded Gorgone and his fellow cops, forcing a hasty retreat. "What really bothered me was the 12-year-old girl who was calling me a 'pig,'" recalls Gorgone. To him, the bike detail is old-fashioned policing, designed to combat the upsurge in hostility observed since the police shooting in March of James Jahar Perez.

The community-policing exercise, featuring six cops going out two days a week, targets the St. Johns community, especially four low-income apartment complexes off North Fessenden Street: Pier Park, St. Johns Woods, Parkside Commons and Ridgecrest Timbers. There are 500 units between them, with at least 2,000 residents in all.

There, the bureau's strained relations with the African-American community still shows in many residents' averted eyes. Many spit as we pass to protest our presence.

Still, kids come running at the sight of the police. Gorgone and Pahlke hand out badge-shaped stickers that show McGruff the cartoon crime dog; they read "Junior Crime Fighter."

Seven hours later, we're back at the precinct, mission accomplished. We've cited a half-dozen abandoned cars, issued open-container tickets to two well-known drunks, handed out at least a hundred stickers and had friendly chats with more than a dozen adult residents of various ethnicities.

Gorgone says the weekend detail, which will extend through the summer, is not just about winning "hearts and minds." It's also about helping rookie cops--many of whom hail from rural areas--get accustomed to urban police work and get beyond an "us-and-them" mindset. Says Gorgone: "You can see the light bulbs going off."

 
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