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Los Angeles Police Department's Off-Road Patrols Chase Crime Wherever It Leads

From the popular bike path atop Hansen Dam, the view of the basin stretching toward the foothills is pristine, with dense trees shrouding streams and trails largely left to nature.

But horseback riders who frequent the basin's trails hidden by the canopy are often confronted by its ugly underbelly: graffiti, litter, homeless encampments, used condoms hanging from branches -- the aftermath of prostitution going on in the bushes.

They hear of even worse. Just last month, a pregnant woman in her 20s was dragged off the bike path and raped. The suspect remains at large, having fled into the sprawling park.

It's crimes such as these that a small group of police officers -- looking more like motocross riders in their black and white jerseys, helmets and boots -- are trying to quash from atop their Kawasaki dirt bikes.

Going where no patrol cruiser can go, the Off Road Enforcement Unit, little known even within the LAPD despite its nearly 50-year history, traverses the rugged and rural terrain of the San Fernando Valley, including some 165 miles of fire roads and trails.

The unit has seven officers and two sergeants, who mount the dirt bikes a few times a month, spending most of their time otherwise as traditional motorcycle traffic officers.

"They're very useful, more so than horses," said Sgt. Art Gomez of Valley Traffic Division, which the unit is based out of. "They can get up where horses can't."

And they can get places where most people wouldn't think to go, or even knew existed.

Such as inside the Foothill (210) Freeway.

On patrol around the Hansen Dam area on Wednesday, officers rode down into the wash under the freeway overpass in Lake View Terrace, past gang graffiti adorning the abutments, then climbed on foot up its sloped banks, bending under the hulking concrete mass as they made their way toward manholes opening up underneath the freeway itself.

Officer Steve Carbajal, who helps oversee the unit, drew his gun and flashlight and popped his head up into the hollow structure, making sure no one was home.

No one was. But clothes hangers, mirrors, mattresses, empty cans, a book on maps, a charred makeshift torch and all types of junk stretching beyond the flashlight's reach -- indicated that those living inside the mile-long tunnel of darkness were probably not long gone.

"It's a real eye-opener," said Carbajal, adding that the unit had contacted Caltrans to weld up the manholes. "The general public just drives by and they aren't aware of things that are taking place that they can't see with their own eyes."

The unit, a pack of up to five riders scours dusty flood control channels and gritty underpasses as trains or freeway traffic rumble by overhead.

"They're able to get into areas that I'm not able to get to," said Officer Larry Martinez of LAPD's Foothill Division, who requests the unit to patrol the Hansen Dam area due to complaints and ongoing problems.

"Usually what I do is I'll park the car and walk with my partner and we'll look in all the bushes as we're walking along. So with them, it's great."

Around Hansen Dam, a hub of equestrian activity, the unit has cited people who are illegally driving off-road vehicles or walking vicious dogs off leash on horse trails, both of which tend

to spook horses and have been main concerns of the equestrians.

The unit complements the work of a group of civilian horseback riders who voluntarily patrol the area and report issues to authorities or city officials.

"There are a lot of places that people get in and there are bad folks that know the bad areas and they get away from the cops," said Rene Herrera, president of the Foothill Mounted Patrol, a group of about 45 riders.

"They're able to be visible so the bad guys stayed away. We don't have nearly the amount of stuff we had."

People have also shot at wildlife, Martinez said. And prostitutes often meet clients in the bushes. The unit has made drug arrests there and while looking for the rape suspect, arrested a man who was exposing himself to runners in the park.

Homeless are sometimes cited for trespassing, and those who aren't are interviewed to input into a database. At one encampment under a bridge on San Fernando Road near Branford Street on Wednesday, officers found and arrested a Lancaster convict who hadn't reported to his parole officer in a year.

"There could be a murder suspect that's out there living in the bushes," Carbajal said. "You just never know what you're going to come across."

Other major concerns include fire hazards, which can ignite the dry brush in the area and spread quickly across the foothills. Grass fires have sprouted recently from homeless encampments and by portable barbecues that crowds of up to 300 bring as they converge on the stream on weekends, police said.

"Fires are a huge concern," said Sgt. Ron Alberca, head of the unit. "Aside from costing lives, they cost the state millions of dollars."

The part-time unit also participates in search and rescues and responds to injured hikers, which are common during the summer months.

"They get hurt, they need help, you can't get an address there ... our traditional vehicles can't get to you," said City Councilman Dennis Zine, who made some outings with the unit during his time as a traffic cop. "You can get a helicopter, but you need to rappel from a helicopter. So these folks serve a vital purpose. And a lot of people don't even know they exist."

The unit was on standby during Carmageddon, and served as a blueprint for the Los Angeles Fire Department, which debuted paramedics riding Kawasaki dirt bikes to thread through traffic and patrol brushy areas during the closure of the 405 Freeway the weekend of July 15-17.

The group was also involved in the search for the Hansen Dam rapist and was part of a massive manhunt for the killer of a Valley Village bride-to-be in the steep and woody hillsides of Coldwater Canyon last September.

While looking for the rape suspect, the group followed a channel and found a homeless encampment underneath a bridge at San Fernando Road near Branford Street, invisible to all except those riding by in Amtrak trains just feet away.

"I don't know how many times I've driven over this bridge and I never would have thought," said Officer Tim Gallick. "Because you would never think that there are people living under the bridge."

The camp was complete with a plywood and tarp shower, a working generator that powered fans and a DVD player, and a pit bull. Mounds of dismantled electronics, mostly televisions, were heaped around the camp, likely stolen property that no one had bothered to report and police had no way of tracking, Gomez said.

The camp was just down the street from a known prostitution area, which tends to attract car break-ins and home burglaries, Gomez said.

"These are the guys that nickel and dime the community," Gomez said. "A lot of the times, these folks are using these locations as their base to go do all their crime and come back."

The unit started in the late 1960s in response to complaints about illegal off-roading in the hilly terrain of the foothills in the Northeast Valley.

Dubbed the "dirty shirt detail," officers then rode stripped-down Harley-Davidsons, wore uniform shirts and jeans and carried simple two-way radios. They began wearing safety equipment and switched to dirt bikes in the late 1980s.

"I never saw them until now," said Jose San Miguel, a community activist supporting the Hansen Dam area who has been jogging there for 15 years. "It can be helpful if they can be present more often there. Otherwise, it doesn't make any difference."

San Miguel of Pacoima said he would like to see the unit patrol there at least once a week, during peak hours.

He may get his wish.

Officials hope to expand the program to deploy five times a week, and want four officers assigned full time to the unit beginning next year, although that could be tough with the department's budget woes.

But relying on a $15,000 grant from the California State Parks Foundation, the unit plans on buying another dirt bike and more equipment.

"It's a huge asset to have," said Herrera. "If nobody does anything and the cops can't get to it ... the consequence of all this crap is the park getting shut down. And no one will get to ride in there."

McClatchy-Tribune News Service