By Mike LaBella
---- — HAVERHILL — They move swiftly and quietly and, if you're involved in illegal activity, they spell trouble for you.
From a distance they look like your average person riding a bicycle. But as they get closer you realize they're wearing badges and are carrying guns. They're Haverhill police officers on bikes.
In an effort to keep a lid on street crime and other quality-of-life concerns, the city has instituted police foot and bike patrols this summer.
The officers are concentrating their efforts in the Acre and Mount Washington neighborhoods, which have experienced a rise in complaints from residents about drugs and other illegal activities.
Multi-speed mountain bikes give officers the ability to move quietly and quickly in an effort to apprehend people involved in criminal activities.
"They don't hear you coming," said officer Wayne Tracy, one of the bike patrol officers.
Detective Lt. Robert Pistone said members of his department's Street Crimes Unit are spending the majority of their time this summer patrolling the Acre and Mount Washington area, where he said there's a greater need for police presence.
"We were fortunate to be able to enroll them in training," Pistone said of the officers. "You can't just put them out there if they haven't been trained. So we were able to deploy them."
The officers recently attended special bike patrol training at the Andover Police Department that included techniques for negotiating obstacles and in general how to safely ride their bikes in the performance of their duties.
Pistone said his department institutes bike patrols every summer, but this year there are more officers on bikes.
"You may have seen as many as two in the past, but this year you'll see as many as six at a time, depending on the need," he said.
Pistone said these community policing patrols are being paid for through the department's regular operating budget.
"By having officers on foot or on bicycles, they're more accessible to citizens and are more in tune with what's going on in our neighborhoods," Pistone said. "That's everything from crime fighting to meeting with concerned citizens."
Officers Wayne Tracy, Dana Burrill Jr., Joseph Ingham and Rick Welch were recently on patrol in the Portland Street area and stopped to speak with The Eagle-Tribune. These and other officers assigned to the department's Street Crimes Unit are not only on the lookout for trouble, but they also stop to chat with residents of all ages in an effort to build good will.
"The other day we were riding around with three children on bikes in the Nichols Street and 4th Avenue area and the kids loved it," Tracy said. "We were calling them our deputies and they couldn't get enough of it."
"It definitely fosters good will with citizens, as officers can stop and talk with kids as well as adults," Pistone said.
Welch said the beauty of bicycle patrols is the ability to rapidly and quietly enter areas such as city parks that aren't easily accessible to police cruisers. Narrow streets and alleyways are no obstacle to these officers.
"If you're in a car and something happens, it can be too late by the time you get there," Welch said.
Pistone said that in the summertime, officers are often in cruisers with their windows up, the air conditioning and radios on are going from call to call.
"While on foot or bike, they have the ability to take away all those distractions," Pistone said. "They can be more attuned to what's going on in their environment."
The bike patrol officers recently made several arrests, including on June 30 when Ingham and Welch encountered two men with alcohol, sitting on the concrete bench at GAR Park. One of the men had an unopened can of "Natty Daddy," a malt liquor drink, while the other had a small bottle of vodka and a bottle of Gatorade.
"The entire area smelled of beer," Ingham wrote in his police report, noting that police encountered the same two men before and had warned them about laws pertaining to drinking in public.
Ingham's report said a mother and her child were playing ball nearby, while several other people were in GAR Park trying to enjoy the nice weather.
According to Ingham's report, police had received numerous complaints of vagrants drinking in GAR Park, as well as drug complaints and general nuisance complaints. A police cruiser was called to transport the two men to the police station, where they were booked on charges of drinking in public.