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Baltimore school police take students shopping

More than a dozen police cars with red and blue lights flashing and sirens blaring pulled up to the Glen Burnie Walmart Saturday morning.

They weren't coming to bust some elusive shoplifting crew. When the officers arrived at the store, they helped little passengers out of cruisers, and took them shopping.

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About 50 Baltimore students spent the day with city school police officers, beginning with a McDonald's breakfast at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School and then the ride in a cruiser — a few had to take a yellow school bus. At Walmart, they picked out toys in the annual Shop with a Cop event.

The school police department holds such events to provide needy kids with presents for Christmas — and to have positive interactions with the communities they serve at a time when police are facing greater scrutiny and criticism following the deaths of several young black men during arrests.

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In Baltimore, the school police have been at the center of a debate over the necessity of arming officers in schools. Lawmakers in Annapolis considered but did not pass a bill that would have allowed school resource officers to be armed.

In Baltimore, the school system runs its own police force. School resource officers patrol from posts in the community, rather than inside school buildings.

On Saturday, the kids swarmed the store's entrance, grabbing shopping carts and finding their way back to the toy aisles. Some shoppers stared at the eager youngsters paired with uniformed officers. Others smiled. A few walked up to the officers and thanked them for their service.

"I like to see the smile of the kids' faces," said Officer Tyrone Pruitt. For some kids, he said, it offers a positive experience with officers they might not have.

"It gives them a different view of what police are like."

The officers also enjoy the event, schools Police Chief Marshall T. Goodwin said.

"Some of the officers love the toys as much as the kids," he said, and smiled.

Goodwin said the department aims to raise $5,000 in donations each year from local politicians and corporate sponsors, which allows them to purchase a $100 gift card for each kid. The number of participants has grown from the 15 they started with more than a decade ago.

Often, he said, kids will pick up more than $100 worth of toys. Often, that includes items they've picked out for their parents or siblings. Goodwin said many of the officers will use their own money to make up the difference.

Some kids began filling their carts quickly, excited about pretty much any toy. Some of the older children studied packages carefully before making their choices.

Officer Kevin James was guided to the checkout line by Keyonie Owens, 6, who was pulling the cart. Her sister, Sha' Bria Bell, 7, wrapped her arms around James' left leg.

"We got a lot of stuff so we can have a lot of toys because we usually have no toys," Keyonie said. They had picked out a "Frozen" lip gloss kit, a pair of walkie-talkies, a plush Ninja Turtle — Leonardo — and a Play-Doh set, among other items.

"Christmas is all about giving back," James said. Unfortunately, he said, the need isn't uncommon in the schools where he works.

Tyrone Williams, a 9-year-old student at George Washington Elementary, picked out some Legos for himself and a stuffed animal for his 8-year-old sister. After his shopping was all done, Cpl. Gary Holifield treated him to an Auntie Anne's pretzel.

"It was great," Williams said, and loaded his toys in the cruiser to take home.

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