Senior Officer Fred Casas makes it his business to poke around everybody else's business downtown.
He does it by getting out of his patrol car and walking in and out of stores, coffee shops and restaurants, strolling the alleys, striking up conversations with people he meets along the way.
His nosy, yet easygoing nature is welcomed by store owners, employees and homeless people who say Casas makes them feel safe in the downtown commercial district. Known around the city as "the gentle giant," the 6-foot-7-inch Casas has earned the city's highest honor in the Police Department--the Officer of the Year award. It was given by his peers who have been told often by merchants and residents how much they appreciate Casas' polite intrusions.
Casas "always says hello to me and, oddly enough, seems to genuinely care," said Torkil Johansen, 52, who lives in his car and spends his days collecting recyclables from trash cans. "I'd like to see more cops like him on the streets."
The respect is reciprocated.
Johansen "is a nice homeless man who never bothers anyone, just works his tail off," Casas said.
During a recent walk on his beat, Casas--a Fullerton native who still lives in the city--chatted about his patrol style. Married to a Fullerton police dispatcher, Casas, 37, has been on the force for 14 years, but started walking the downtown beat only about eight months ago.
"Have you replaced that carpet yet?" Casas asked employees who waved him into a travel agency on Commonwealth Avenue that had flooded during the recent rainstorms.
"How's business doing today?" Casas called to the owner of a coffee shop.
Nena Licea, 20, was on her way out of the Williams Co. clothing store across the street when she saw Casas coming. She wanted to ask him a question about her car, which had been stolen but recovered last week.
"All the employees here, we just love Fred," Licea said. "Every day, he walks around and that makes us feel more secure."
Faith Ohanesian, owner of the Snob Hill antique shop on Harbor Boulevard, agreed.
"Fred is always friendly, always approachable," Ohanesian said. "My customers say they feel very comfortable knowing that big fella is walking around looking out for them. He really makes you feel good about shopping and working downtown."
Casas is the only officer who spends most of his work hours on foot patrol. He "does that all on his own. He is the epitome of community-based policing," Police Chief Patrick McKinley said. "Many merchants and residents I come across tell me that he's the finest person in the world for what he does. I'm very, very proud of him."
But Casas says he's just doing his job.
"This is my town," he said. "I was born and raised in Fullerton. I love it and I couldn't think of anything I'd rather do. . . . I just treat people the way I would like to be treated--as a human being."
Even criminals and ex-convicts appreciate Casas' style, officials said.
Through the years, people Casas has arrested and put in jail have written him letters or stopped him on the street to thank him for treating them humanely, he said.
"I've had suspects I've arrested come by and tell me what they're doing with their lives and some give me tips on other crimes, as if returning the favor for treating them with respect," he said.
Casas this week volunteered to act as a liaison for downtown merchants who have questions about the city's operations but don't know who to ask. He now takes charge of collecting questions, asking the right people at City Hall or the Police Department for answers, and delivering them to the merchants.
Casas "is very impressive," said Ken O'Leary, the city's redevelopment project administrator who oversees downtown redevelopment. "He's decided to aggressively interact with the community to find out what problems need to be addressed. . . . He makes himself available and has impressed a lot of citizens out there."
For example, there was the time Casas found a child's teddy bear.
"Fred found the lost bear in the street and placed it with a note on a car that had a (child safety seat) inside," O'Leary said. "When the parent saw it there, he was very happy because it was his kid's favorite toy."