Police raise mall presence after thefts from vehicles

Of more than 20 break-ins in Columbia, most involve GPS

December 19, 2007|By Tyeesha Dixon | Tyeesha Dixon,Sun reporter

Howard County police have increased their presence at a number of county shopping centers for the holiday season - a move they hope will help deter crime and make shoppers more cautious.

But along with the added security and dose of good cheer that accompany this time of year, a rash of vehicle break-ins at The Mall in Columbia has left some shoppers in a tizzy.

As of Monday, there had been 21 break-ins at the mall since Nov. 30, and the bulk of them have included a broken window and a stolen Global Positioning System, said police spokeswoman Sherry Llewellyn.

In addressing the issue, Llewellyn said the department has increased the number of plain-clothed officers and patrol cars at the mall and other major shopping centers in the county. She said the "focus is on criminal activity on the parking lots, specifically thefts from vehicles and any other crimes in the area."

Llewellyn added that additional uniformed officers in marked cars have be assigned to patrol shopping areas.

There have not been similar break-ins reported in other shopping centers or significant increases in other crimes in the past month, Llewellyn said.

Uniformed police officers, volunteers and McGruff the Crime Dog are handing out safety information cards to passers-by at busy shopping centers during the holiday season. The cards include tips on how to shop more safely as well as reminders to buckle seat belts and not drink and drive. The campaign started Dec. 12 and will continue through this weekend, said Pfc. Chris Davis.

"People have really been receptive, glad to see us out there," said Davis, who, along with another police officer and five volunteers handed out cards at The Mall in Columbia on Monday evening. "We tell them things they sometimes overlook at the holidays."

The volunteers are Howard County Police Explorers, a group of 14- to 21-year-olds interested in learning more about careers in law enforcement. Will Harris, 18, captain of the Howard County Explorers post, said most people are excited to see the police in the shopping areas and "mostly the kids are happy to see McGruff."

Shoppers and mall employees say they are glad to see a police presence in the mall. Reia Reed, who works at an ornament stand said the safety cards are a good idea.

"It'll help bring down the nonsense so people will be able to shop," she said.

Maxine Klane, who was shopping in the mall Monday, said that seeing the police can often remind shoppers to be more cautious.

"It's good to let people know they need to pay closer attention," said Klane, who has lived in Columbia for more than 30 years. "We can't get complacent. I think it's good to see them around. ... It deters the crime from happening."

In another effort to improve road safety during the holidays, the department is increasing the number of sobriety checkpoints.

On Friday and Saturday, police set up a checkpoint on eastbound Route 175 at Columbia Gateway Drive. Of the nearly 900 cars that passed through, 10 drivers were arrested and charged with driving under the influence of alcohol or driving while impaired by alcohol or drugs, according to the department.

But not all shoppers feel assured that the shopping centers are completely safe. Tracy Bruening, who lives in Laurel in Prince George's County, said she parked her car on the mall parking lot about 2:30 p.m. Thursday only to find a broken driver-side window and missing items, including a GPS, when she returned 40 minutes later.

"I would never have thought something would happen like that over there," Bruening said. "It's dangerous, and people need to know."

David Jaffa of Columbia said his van was broken into about 4:30 p.m. Saturday on the mall parking lot. Jaffa said the passenger-side window was broken and his GPS was stolen.

Karen Geary, the mall's senior general manager, said the mall's private security staff is working closely with the police to prevent such crimes.

"We do our best to create a safe shopping environment," she said.

"We're finding a lot of this is GPS-related, where there are GPS systems that are wide open sitting on the seat or on the dashboard - and those are very hot property. We also ask the customers to take measures, and if there is something of value, to always lock those in their trunks," Geary said.

She would not disclose the number of security officers at the mall. "We certainly feel that we have an adequate number, and they're constantly on patrol on the exterior as well as the interior," she said.

tyeesha.dixon@baltsun.com

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