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More cops ride downtown for holidays

Vance Walker is part of stepped-up police patrol downtown and his secret weapon is a bicycle. Walker is demonstrating two wheels can be just as effective as four as he practices community policing in Merced's central core.

Walker's beat generally ranges between 15th and 19th streets, G and V streets, from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. With a 21-speed bike equipped with many of the same features as the four-wheeled "black and whites," Walker figures he has a maneuverability advantage in many situations.

"Do I enjoy this? Oh yeah," he said. "To me bike patrol is the best position to be in. It's a really effective tool to make arrests. Merchants seem to be pleased to see bike patrols back."

Cmdr. Norm Andrade of the Merced Police Department said extra officers are deployed to local shopping areas during the Christmas season in a proactive stance, because burglaries and strong-armed robberies increase during that time.

Walker said people will approach him on his bicycle although they are reluctant to do so with a regular squad car. It's part of a concerted effort for officers to be more approachable and build rapport with merchants and residents alike.

The 49-year-old Walker, who has nine years with the department, rides mountain and road bikes during his off-time. Twice a week he rides about 50 miles for pleasure and admits the bike patrol is good exercise and great for the environment.

Walker did bike patrol full-time for two years about five years ago until the practice was stopped because of a shortage of officers. With an increased force now, he is hoping the bike patrol effort can be sustained after the Christmas holidays.

"My presence is enough for people to act like they are supposed to act," Walker said.

Lt. Andre Matthews said foot patrols and bike patrols are being implemented to ensure a safer, more pleasurable environment downtown and other shopping areas. A number of Merced officers ride bikes in their off time, making the bike patrol an ideal arrangement.

Lonnie Cox, owner of Cop-A-Comic on West Main Street, is glad to see the bike patrol reinstituted. He says he has frequent problems with bicyclists and skateboarders illegally whizzing by at high speed on the sidewalk in front of his store.

Walker, also a field training officer, estimates he rides about 20 miles a day. He can reach speeds of 30 mph for short periods of time and is capable of going 15 to 20 mph for longer periods of time. His bicycle has blue and red lights and a loud siren for vehicle stops.

When he patrols grocery store parking lots, Walker said he frequently talks to a dozen or more people, who ask him questions about all manner of issues. Bike patrols discourage panhandling and robbery attempts and shoppers feel more secure patronizing downtown stores, he adds.

Lt. Floyd Higdon said the whole purpose of bike and foot patrols is to have a presence which will deter any kind of crime. It also involves building close relationships between officers and the people they serve.

"We want to be transparent," Higdon said. "It's something merchants have asked for. It's part of community policing and is very effective in small areas. On a bike you can get through traffic much easier and respond much quicker than even the patrol cars."

Associate Editor Doane Yawger can be reached at 209-385-2485 or dyawger@mercedsun-star.com.

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