- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The hustle and bustle of shoppers this time of year can inspire holiday cheer, but also ample opportunity for crime.

However, the Montgomery County Police Department is taking a proactive approach to prevent crime. The department initiated its Shop With a Cop program on Black Friday, detailing officers from six police districts to shopping areas to provide high visibility and extra security and to remind people about driving and pedestrian safety.

“That’s when our antennas go up for visibility and attention around the malls and other areas,” said Capt. Luther Reynolds.

The department targets parking lots for safety measures. About 22 percent of reported pedestrian collisions in Montgomery County are in parking lots. Police say pedestrians and drivers should not assume they see each other, and that shoppers should wear highly visible clothing, especially after dark.

Shop With a Cop has been implemented in the Congressional Shopping Center in Rockville, the central business district of Bethesda, the central business district of Silver Spring, the Milestone Shopping Center in Germantown, and Lake Forest Mall in Gaithersburg. Officers are distributing 5,000 reflective and recyclable bright green shopping bags displaying a pedestrian and driver safety message on the front and back.

“I am very pleased that our officers’ presence will provide additional security during this busy holiday season,” said Chief Thomas Manger. “The distribution of the safety-messaged shopping bags will serve as tangible reminders of the critical importance of driving and pedestrian safety. Let’s make this not only a happy holiday season but also a safe one.”

The program and the free shopping bags are funded by revenue generated by the Safe Speed automated photo enforcement.

Officers also provide safety tips to shoppers. “We hand out cards and put them on people’s windshields,” Capt. Reynolds said.

Officers say shoppers should be aware of their surroundings and stay alert, and park in well-lighted areas and be as close as possible to the mall or stores. Car doors should be locked and packages hidden in the trunk or under the seat. Shoppers should not carry large amounts of cash and may want to consider paying by check or credit card instead. Police advise shoppers not to be encumbered with large packages and to carry purchased items to their vehicles if they continue to shop. Purses should be carried close to the body, and wallets should be placed inside a coat or front pants pocket.

Theft is one of the most common crimes.

Capt. Reynolds said: “There are specific items we know are being stolen, and those include Global Positioning Systems, iPods, cell phones, laptops, purses, things of that nature, that are left in open view - typically, in many cases, where a door is left unlocked. If we can eliminate these opportunities by removing valuables or not having them in plain sight, we will reduce the number of victims of this crime, which is our goal. People are greatly impacted when affected by a crime like that, and it is a significant nuisance.”

Police suggest that pedestrians walk with confidence, be alert and attuned to their surroundings, and be clear about their direction. Trust your instincts, police said, and avoid anyone who makes you feel uneasy. If you suspect you are being followed, then change direction, cross the street, or walk toward a lighted area such as an open store, restaurant or house. People should have their key in hand before reaching their car or house door, police say.

“Through outreach and education, we can have impact and reduce the number of victims,” Capt. Reynolds said.

Targets of attempted robbery should offer no resistance, police say, and relinquish property rather than endangering their lives. Capt. Reynolds said police should be contacted immediately after a crime to increase the chance that the perpetrator will be apprehended and to prevent additional crimes.

Various officers are involved with Shop With a Cop.

“There are officers that would normally be on administrative assignment that have been reassigned to these areas during these times for the specific purpose of protecting the community and enhancing safety around these areas, and that is what makes it unique,” Capt. Reynolds said. “If we are not visible and proactive, certain types of crime will occur: robbery, thefts and pickpockets. We want to try to be there at the right time to protect, to educate and to enforce.”

Higher police visibility has proved to be effective in deterring crime during the holiday season.

All officers, including the SWAT team, have been placed in the field to provide additional eyes and ears.

“We have a lot of different resources that we put out there, and it supplements this Shop With a Cop initiative,” Capt. Reynolds said. “It’s a team effort to keep our communities and our county safe. There are a lot of different entities that are focused in the districts to keep our communities, shoppers, and community members and residents safe. We have a finite amount of resources, and our goal is to focus on what we have to keep the community safe which is our ultimate goal.”

The Shop With a Cop initiative likely will be extended beyond Christmas because of the high volume of shoppers at malls for post-holiday sales.

c Karen L. Bune is a consultant for the U.S. Department of Justice and an adjunct professor at George Mason and Marymount universities.

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