Officers in Isla Vista ride bikes with local youth during COVID-19
Police officers have partnered with the St. George YMCA Youth Center in Isla Vista to start a program called “Cycling with the Cops.”
Kids from upper elementary grades to freshmen in high school use bikes donated from UC Police and bike all around Goleta and even to Santa Barbara with two to four Isla Vista sheriff’s deputies right alongside them.
The program started as “Pizza with Police,” which began around three years ago.
Police officers would meet up with kids and do an activity once a month, including forensic activities where kids could dust for fingerprints, hear safety talks on walking home safely from school, learn how to call 911, discover how to be a good witness and take CPR classes.
“We just got to know the kids a little better,” said Justin Schroeder, the Isla Vista community resource deputy with the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office. “They came from households that maybe don’t trust law enforcement too much, and that’s kind of their first interaction with law enforcement.”
He told the News-Press that the participants were nervous and intimidated at first, but six months after starting the program, kids would come and ask the officers questions on behalf of their parents who were curious about a law.
Once COVID-19 hit and social distancing needed to be enforced, the deputies had to brainstorm to find ways to foster their relationships with the kids.
The Youth Center approached the Sheriff’s Office’s Isla Vista Foot Patrol and UCSB Police with the idea of Cycling with the Cops back in 2019. UC Police provided donated bikes, and UCSB Associated Students Bike Shop helped with repairs.
With the stay at home order in place, the organizations saw the need for a safe, active activity for kids.
Victoria Saunders started her position as a UCSB police officer assigned to the community outreach team two years ago. As a spin teacher on her days off and a Santa Barbara native who knows the area well, she knew Cycling with the Cops was right in her wheelhouse.
“I think with COVID-19 and everything that’s going on, it’s super important for kids to get outside and get some exercise,” she told the News-Press. “I think it’s good for your mental health, your mental being, your physical health, and it keeps you in shape. Hopefully when you’re on a mental and physical health high, you have a happy attitude too.”
So far, the groups have gone on a handful of rides, and while the officers started with only a handful of kids, now they’re averaging 12 to 15 kids coming to ride.
Starting at the Youth Center, the bikers have traveled to Goleta Beach, Rusty’s Pizza Parlor near Turnpike Road, Haskell’s Beach, and last Monday, More Mesa Beach.
“My favorite part is usually right after our halfway point,” Deputy Schroeder said. “You start riding, and you try to chit chat with them and they don’t really want to talk. But then, you get that exercise, you’re breathing, you’re working out, and you get to the halfway point, and all of the sudden they’re like, ‘Hey, so what’s it like being a cop?’ ”
He said he likes the connection that builds throughout the ride and the deep conversations that occur in the second half.
“Sometimes the kids will act too cool to be there, but they showed up, so that means they want to be there,” Officer Saunders said. “I just want to give them that outlet where they can have a safe place to come, hang out and get out of the house for a bit.”
Following nationwide protests and civil unrest after the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer in May, phrases such as “All cops are bad” and the like have been chanted by younger generations.
However, Deputy Schroeder said the officers’ messaging to the youth that their job is to protect hasn’t changed.
“We were doing that before it was cool, I guess,” he said. “I don’t think we’ve really sat down and talked to the kids specifically about that. In roundabout ways, they ask about it, and it may be too soon to sit down and talk about it. There’s still a lot of emotions.”
Leonor Reyes, the program director for the youth center, said the purpose of the program is to build relationships and break down those barriers between law enforcement and the general public.
“I reviewed a study and I can’t remember where it was from, but they were asking youth how they felt about law enforcement, and for Isla Vista, they reported greater community connection,” Ms. Reyes told the News-Press. “We’re really thankful for the partnership and that we can collaborate with the sheriffs and the YMCA and offer this opportunity for the youth, but also for law enforcement to really get connected with the kids and the community.”
Officer Saunders said any kids or adults who are interested in joining the bike rides are welcome, and to contact the St. George YMCA Youth Center to get involved.