HAYWARD -- Downtown's stealth ninja — that's what one Hayward merchant called police Officer Craig Fovel, who began patrolling on bicycle at the beginning of the year.
"I can get on top of people before they know I'm there," Fovel said.
Downtown merchants have been asking for the return of bike patrols to combat loitering, vehicle break-ins, burglaries and other crimes in the area. The patrols were eliminated years ago because of budget cuts.
"I am absolutely delighted," said Renee Rettig, manager of The Book Shop on B Street. She is a member of United Merchants of Downtown Hayward, which is working with the city on downtown problems. The group had asked the City Council for a bicycle patrol officer.
"We've already seen a positive response. Officer Fovel is making sure downtown is safer," she said.
Police Sgt. Rich Butler revived the bicycle patrol when he took over supervision of the school resource officer program. Although several Hayward officers have had the special training for bicycle patrolling, the program had been dormant since the 1990s. Butler credits police Chief Diane Urban with backing him, agreeing to purchase five new bikes. Bicycles used in earlier patrols also were refurbished.
The resource officers riding bikes can quickly and quietly get to places where kids are hiding from police, Butler said.
That same logic applies to downtown, where groups often loiter, drinking or using drugs.
To be certified on a bicycle, officers train for 24 hours, starting with the basics of how best to get on and off a bike and even how to fall. They must navigate an obstacle course, which includes riding down a flight of stairs.
"You have to be able to ride through crowds and multitask, such as answering your radio while on a bike," said Butler, who also is bike certified. "A bicycle is an incredible tool for a congested area. It's also stealthy."
An officer patrolling on a bike will help with thefts and car break-ins, said Heidi Brogan of The Pizza House on B Street.
"Having the police be able to go down the nooks and crannies and side streets of downtown is definitely an advantage -- as long as he's safe," she said. "When you have a police presence, it scatters the bad element."
As a police officer, Fovel is exempt from bicycle laws when necessary. "A few people have said, 'You can't do that' when they see me riding on the sidewalk. Well, yes, I can."
He also is not required to have a front light for riding at night, which helps when approaching suspects. "A light would allow criminals to see me in the dark," he said. As to whether not using a light makes riding riskier, "when on a bicycle, you always have to assume that vehicles aren't going to see you. I make sure I make eye contact with the driver," Fovel said.
The Bistro co-owner Vic Kralj said he's noticed fewer people loitering on B Street since Fovel began his patrols. "This will make my operation more appealing," he said.
His enthusiasm is shared by Hayward Ace Hardware store owner Jim Wieder.
"It's fantastic news," he said. When the police had downtown bicycle patrols before, the officers would roll into his store. "It really enabled the police department to have one-on-one contact with the merchants and the community in a safe, friendly way," Wieder said.
By Monday, downtown had seen 18 vehicle break-ins, nine burglaries and 14 assaults this month, police said. Police made 84 pedestrian stops, often issuing warnings or citations.
Fovel, a 12-year veteran of the Hayward force, has patrolled the northern part of the city, which includes downtown.
The downtown beat is "the best assignment in the police department," he said.
Contact Rebecca Parr at 510-293-2473 or follow her at Twitter.com/rdparr1.