On a Saturday before Christmas, Napa police sergeants Aaron Medina and Brian Campagna were on patrol on their bikes when they came across three teenagers at the now-empty Cinedome Theater on Pearl Street.
One of the teens, a cyclist, had marijuana; another teen, a skateboarder, had four beer cans in his backpack. Both were cited and released.
Rain or shine, Medina and the six other officers assigned to the Napa Police Department’s bike unit leave their cruisers behind to patrol the city’s streets, parks and parking garages on Trek mountain bikes.
Officers assigned to the new bike unit, organized last fall, say they navigate Napa’s streets more easily on bikes, reaching the city’s more hidden spots, including parking garages and back alleys.
The bike unit, which goes out three times a week, was formed as part of an effort to reduce commonly reported crimes in downtown Napa, including loitering, drug use and public drunkenness.
Compared to riding in a patrol car, bike officers have a stealth advantage that allows them to surprise people engaged in nefarious activities, police said.
At the same time, being on a bike allows the officers to be more accessible. Often, this means referring homeless men and women to shelters, mental health and other services, officers said.
Officer Tristan Cline, who wrote the bike unit’s tactical action plan, worked for the Santa Cruz Police Department where police officers on bikes are a common sight.
“We want to be accessible,” said Cline. “Downtown lends itself to riding bikes. In theory, marijuana and alcohol are kind of a small thing, but we don’t know what happens after they leave here — if they go run out in front of a car, get in a fight with somebody ...”
Cline was present for the encounter with the three teens at the old Cinedome. “We’d rather stop it here than have it become a bigger issue tonight,” Cline said.
For now, the seven officers usually patrol downtown Napa, as well as the Napa Premium Outlets and Bel Aire Plaza. Medina said the department wants to hear from the public before deciding whether to expand the bike unit, whose “fleet” includes half-a-dozen bikes purchased years ago during an earlier experiment with bike patrols. “We’re constantly re-evaluating it,” he said.
Steve Rodrigues, owner at Val’s Liquors on Third Street, said he hopes the bike unit will curb loitering and panhandling up and down the street.
“I hope it works,” he said. “I think it’s a good idea.”
Kent Gardella, owner of Napa Valley Jewelers at The Shops at Napa Center, formerly the Napa Town Center, said he has asked police to patrol Coombs Street and the nearby Pearl Street garage where people have been hanging out and worrying his customers. “I think they have been helpful,” he said.
At Bel Aire Plaza, Lark Shoes manager Joe Saxsenmeier, has not seen the officers on bikes, though he notes he spends most of his time inside the store.
While he believes traffic in the parking lot is the big issue at Bel Aire Plaza, he has seen bike units in other cities, including Santa Cruz where he used to live.
He noticed how police officers on bikes in Santa Cruz could reach pedestrian areas cars could not. “That was kind of cool,” he said.