PORTLAND'S PAROLE OFFICERS spend a lot of time in stinky places. Smelling cat pee in squalid apartments. Human pee under bridges.
"I love the smell of urine in the morning!" says Officer Ron Kates, inhaling deeply as we bike under the Burnside Bridge with Officer Dylan Arthur, looking for someone who has disappeared.
Parole officers keep track of people who have just been released from prison, the guys and gals who must check in weekly or monthly to let the state know they're not drinking, not dealing, not hoarding pornography, or harassing their girlfriend—depending on why they went to prison in the first place. If they stay clean, they stay free. When parolees relapse or skip meetings, Kates or Arthur issue a warrant and try to find them in whatever street or ditch they've landed.
The team has a new tool to help them track down parolees who've disappeared: bikes.
The Multnomah County Department of Community Justice purchased two bicycles last month. Only five of its 120 parole officers have undergone the 40 hours of training required to ride, but District Manager Pat Schreiner is enthusiastic that bikes are the future of parole patrol.
"People are more willing to talk to someone on a bike than an authority figure in the car," says Schreiner. Though the county shelled out about $1,500 for two hardy Focus mountain bikes and equipment, Schreiner expects to save money in the long run. "If they are able to connect with people out in the community who were reluctant to call in, it will save us a bunch of money because we'll save on court costs and issuing warrants."
On the street, Kates attracts hoots and hollers from the rough and tumble crowd outside Sisters of the Road when he lifts his bike up on his shoulder to enter the West Hotel.
"Ooo! Muscle man!" shouts a former parolee from the corner.
"Hey! You want a true Marine to watch your bikes?" asks another man. A third parolee, with an eye patch and few teeth, walks over to check us out, an unusual trio on bikes. Arthur and Kates have a key to the West (they check in on two parolees here), but they left it at the office. We're locked out.
"How are you doing?" Kates asks the eye-patch guy.
"I'm alive!" he replies, placing a finger on his neck below his whiskery beard. "Wait, let me check my pulse," he jokes.
"People are more willing to talk to you on a bike," Kates says to me. "When you roll by in a car, I don't know, maybe people think it's a short trip from talking to you to being arrested and being in the back of the car."
The more people there are who will talk to them, the more likely they are to find someone who's slipped away.
Arthur and Kates are each responsible for about 50 guys, mostly sex offenders. We're eventually let into the West Hotel and carry our bikes up a long flight of red, wooden stairs.
"It's not an easy transition. You take guys who've lived the criminal lifestyle all their lives, throw 'em in jail and expect them to be totally different when they get out. That's not going to happen," says Arthur. Biking to a parolee's house unannounced or rolling past him on the street, the officers can see who he's hanging out with and what his life looks like.
A parolee who lives at the far end of the hall has hung decorative antlers and a Slinky from his ceiling. He asks how he can go about collecting cans to return for nickels, since he's banned from having beer cans in his room.
"You'd have to just return them right away," says Arthur. "And if Ron or I roll by and see you with a bunch of beer cans, expect to be peeing in a cup."