ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — For years, loiterers have caused problems outside Michael Araria's liquor store in Parramore.

He'd call Orlando police and an officer would come to shoo away the troublemakers. But, he said, they would just return a few minutes later after the cops left. They'd often fight or vandalize property, prompting more calls to police.

On a recent evening, the sidewalk in front of the store was empty. Araria, owner of Mike's Liquor Store on Parramore Avenue, credits the Orlando police Parramore bike unit for clearing the area.

"As a business owner it's a good thing," said Araria, 44. "Now people won't be bothered when they are coming inside."

After a five-year hiatus, the Orlando Police Department's Parramore bike unit has returned, thanks to a matching $3.5 million federal grant that funds 15 officers over three years. Bicycle officers started patrolling the area again on Feb. 1.

The area has long been plagued by drugs and violence. Earlier this month, a 37-year-old man was shot to death on the sidewalk on Lee Avenue near South Street. The shooting came as no surprise to resident and landlord Phil Cowherd, 71.

"If someone is not shot within a few hundred feet of the corner of Lee Avenue and South Street and the soccer stadium and the new OPD building at least once a quarter, we Parramore stakeholders are surprised," he said.

Officers from the former Parramore bike unit were rolled into other parts of the department as part of a reorganization in 2013.

But as Parramore grows — including the new Orlando City Stadium, OCPS Academic Center for Excellence school and the under-construction Creative Village, which includes a University of Central Florida campus — there was a need for more policing in the area, officials said. The bike officers join the other officers who patrol the area in cars.

"The Parramore Bike Unit officers have been added to address and manage the large growth within the downtown and Parramore area while decreasing crime and the fear of crime," said police Chief John Mina.

Being on bikes allows officers to be nimble, so they can quickly knock out hot spots for crime such as the loiterers outside the liquor store, said Lt. Jonathan Bigelow, who is one of the leaders of the unit.

"The level of attention these officers can give is a lot more than the typical officer working the road can," he said.

They also are able to catch criminals looking out for police cars, but not people on bikes, Bigelow said.

Officers will also patrol during events at the soccer stadium and Camping World Stadium. Bigelow said the officers will help people feel safer.

"There's no sense in saying, 'Hey, we have this new soccer stadium, but you have 10 percent of people's cars getting broken into,'" Bigelow said. "They aren't going to want to come back."

Returning the bike unit to Parramore was one of the suggestions in a 2015 neighborhood revitalization plan.

Officers on bikes are more approachable, said Orlando City Commissioner Regina Hill, who represents Parramore.

"In the car when they are driving through, it's less personal," Hill said. "When they're on the bikes they become better engaged in talking with youth, talking with the seniors and having that one-on-one contact with citizens."

Bigelow said having community-oriented policing is one of the unit's goals. Officers don't want to spend all their time arresting people, but interacting with them, he said.

Mina, who filed paperwork to run for Orange County sheriff, was a sergeant with the bike unit in 1997.

"I found it to be very effective in both crimefighting and engaging with our community," he said. "I think crime will continue to decrease in the Parramore area partly because of this new unit."


Information from: Orlando Sentinel, http://www.orlandosentinel.com/