Out spokin' on criminals

YOUNGSTOWN -- As early as 6 a.m., men, mostly suburbanites, weave through Market Street traffic looking for a hooker to start their day.
From now on, the johns might have to settle for just coffee on their way to work.
The Youngstown Police Department bike patrol has targeted two troublesome areas on the South Side -- prostitutes at its lower end, gang activity, drug sales and juvenile problems in neighborhoods in its upper corridor.
"They'll be on bicycles? Oh, boy!" said the 80-year-old owner of Dom Zizzo's Barber Shop at 1417 Market. "Yeah, it would be nice to see them gone," he said of the prostitutes who loiter within blocks of his two-chair shop.
"I've been here since 1940. Right here," Zizzo said, emphasizing his point by pounding on the armrests of his barber chair. "I'll retire one of these days. Well, maybe in a couple of years."
Zizzo's shop and other Market Street businesses will benefit from the bike patrol's ability to deter crime, said Police Chief Richard Lewis. Officers assigned to the unit are encouraged to get to know everyone on their route.
The crew: Lewis said four officers -- Mike Anderson, Greg Miller, Marc Gillette and Jeff Roberts -- will be out year-round and ride in all but inclement weather. They'll arrive each day in cruisers outfitted to carry their GT Aggressor 24-gear mountain bikes.
Lt. Rod Foley, commander of the bike patrol, said the concept is a return to more traditional police methods.
Foley joined the officers Wednesday, their first day on the streets. As they cruised, the officers waved to residents who returned the waves and smiled, happy to have the police in their neighborhoods.
Foley said increased visibility and personal contact with the public is the mission of the Neighborhood Response Unit, the bike patrol's formal name.
Anderson and Miller dressed in bicycle shorts to withstand Wed-nesday's searing heat. Gillette and Roberts said their long pants would be just fine, which drew good-natured smirks from the "cool" cops.
Aside from patrolling, Lewis said the officers will attend block watch meetings and listen to the concerns residents have. The idea is to identify, then deal with specific problems.
Despite nearly 100 prostitution arrests since last October by the vice squad and officers on routine patrol, the problem hasn't gone away, Lewis said. He believes the bike method of close-up police presence may work.
"This is a way to deal with the Johns who come into the city, some very early," Lewis said. "It's a quality-of-life issue."
The lower South Side, with its many closed stores, alleys and quick access to Interstate 680, has been a haven for the sex trade as long as most vice cops can remember.
When hookers spot a cruiser, they stop flagging down customers until it passes. Officers on bikes, though, can devote more time to focus on the women who lean into cars and offer sex for cash.
Two brothers who work at Emch Spring Service on West Myrtle Avenue said they like the idea of a concentrated effort to roust the prostitutes.
Pat Gay said he passes one or two about 6:30 each morning as he cuts across Oak Hill on his way to work. They stand close to St. Patrick Church.
"Sometimes they'll stand in the middle of the street," Gay said, shaking his head. "They're around all day long. If a cop pulls up, they'll walk to a pay phone and act like they're talking on the phone."
Bill Gay nodded as he listened and then started to chuckle. He recalled pulling his truck over to the curb one day on Kenmore Avenue -- as you're supposed to do when you hear an ambulance siren -- and having a hooker try to get into his truck.
"She thought I was stopping for her," he said.
"You gotta keep your doors locked -- or have $20 on you," his brother teased.
Expansion: If successful, Lewis wants the new bike unit to expand and be capable of responding to hot spots throughout the city.
While at a seminar in Columbus, Lewis talked to bike patrol officers who provided security at the event. He liked what he heard and returned home to start the pilot project with grant money.
Lewis said the bike officers will respond to calls for service, just as their counterparts do who travel in cruisers.

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