I'm trailing LAPD officer Rudy Lopez when he spots three suspected drug dealers. He darts across 7th Street, hurls his bike against the curb and orders the men to put their hands against the wall. His partner, Stacey Age, and I follow.
Before the officers can search them, I hear gagging--the sound of a drug dealer swallowing his cache of heroine or cocaine. With the evidence gone, the police are forced to let the men walk away. We cycle on in search of more criminals among the canyons of Downtown Los Angeles.
Lopez and Age are two of the Central Division's 12 officers who patrol Downtown on bikes. There are at least a dozen police divisions with bike patrols in Los Angeles County.
Lopez, Age and I cycle past a clutch of prostitutes on Main Street, then head toward the Garment District. Along the way, they hand out zoning violation tickets to three sidewalk fruit vendors, chase off two window washers pestering motorists, rouse a sleeping man from the sidewalk, give out a jaywalking ticket and chat with merchants.
"Are you the real police?" asks an elderly woman. Many people mistake the patrol for a security detail, a misconception that works in the officers' favor: Few people see them coming.
While the officers are more approachable on bikes, Age says they also are easier targets: "I've had water thrown at me, combs, fingernail polish--you name it. When I wrote out a ticket for a fruit vendor two weeks ago, a mob surrounded me, shouting, 'Let her go! Let her go!' "
By day's end we've cycled 10 miles, the last several near 5th and Crocker, a district notorious for drug dealing. As we barrel through the intersection, Lopez once again tosses his bike against the curb. Within seconds, another three men are against a wall. Motioning me over, Lopez pulls out a fistful of crack cocaine from one man's pocket.
Later, while cycling home through the area, a transient throws a beer can at me, yelling, "Hey! Don't feel so safe anymore without your friends, huh?" I shift gears and navigate a patch of broken glass, praying that my bike's thin racing tires will survive the trip home.