Only 48 hours until Christmas. If you've felt safe while shopping, you might want to thank the 15 Howard County police officers who have been zipping around mall parking lots and village centers on bicycles, keeping their eyes peeled for shoplifters and thieves intent on dampening the holiday spirit.
"An officer on a bike can get in and out of parking lots and get through rows of cars quietly and easily," said Sgt. Steven Keller, a police spokesman. "He or she would also draw much less attention to himself than an officer in a car."
Bike patrol officers give shoppers a sense of security, he said. "They can stop and talk to people all the time," he said. "They're not in cars, they're very approachable. They can also cover a lot of ground."
Outfitted in tight-fitting Gortex pants, warm turtlenecks, 20-pound bulletproof vests and bright, waterproof winter jackets, the officers can steer their on- and off-road mountain bikes up to storefronts in commercial areas at the time of year when crime usually increases.
The bike patrol is only a part of the county's holiday patrol program, which began the day after Thanksgiving and ends Jan. 4. Officers from the department's special operations and alcohol enforcement units also take part -- but the bikes' maneuverability made them a natural choice for the detail.
Bike patrols began in 1994 to curb crime along Columbia's many footpaths and in its parks.
Officer Tim Wiley has been riding his bike in the parking lots of strip malls along the U.S. 1 corridor since the day after Thanksgiving -- usually the busiest shopping day of the year. He said he thinks bike patrols have been a public relations dream for the Police Department.
"I think being on the bike makes us more approachable and a little less intimidating," Wiley said. "People are surprised to see you, but glad to know that you're out here.
"And if you're real lucky," he said, "you'll ride up on somebody in the act. You can bust them right there."
Need to be careful
Fred Centofanti, a greeter at the Caldor store in Ellicott City's Chatham Mall, said he thinks bike patrol officers are a much-needed addition to mall security.
"You really have to be careful this time of year," he said. "I see it all the time: Robbers can wait for you by your car in the parking lot, or they'll watch you. With the guys on the bikes, they can get in close to people, get closer to things."
Officer Michele Denton is one of 15 officers working the holiday patrol full time. She said shoppers love having police officers around as they make their way through the malls loaded down with packages, credit cards and cash.
"It's fun sometimes because people and shopkeepers like having you here," said Denton, who hands out shiny fake police badges to children on her route at The Mall in Columbia. "I also get to do a lot of window shopping."
The 5-year-old holiday patrol program's main focus is to make police more visible to the public and merchants, especially evenings and weekends when shopping traffic is heaviest, said Maj. Wayne Livesay, deputy chief of operations for county police.
The officers' increased visibility is also one of the most effective deterrents to crime, Livesay said.
"The success of the program is sometimes difficult to measure because we don't know what would have happened if we didn't do it," he said. "This is the peak time of year for a lot of merchants; this season will make or break a lot of businesses."
He added: "We also know to keep a presence in these areas until after Christmas. It's not like we can shut down after Christmas Day."
A spokeswoman for The Mall in Columbia said security is beefed up during the season by using off-duty police officers and private security guards who walk The Mall during business hours.
Between Nov. 29 and Thursday, 40 property thefts and one vehicle theft occurred at The Mall in Columbia and four thefts were reported at Chatham Mall in Ellicott City, said Lt. Bill McMahon, commander of the police Special Operations Division.
Police offer some safety tips for shoppers who still intend to fight the crowds at the malls:
Park in well-lighted areas. It may be dark when you return to your car.
Always lock your car and put packages out of sight.
If you must carry a purse, carry it close to your body with the clasp closed.
Bring only the cash you will need or use checks or credit cards.
Use automated teller machines during daylight hours inside commercial centers.
Never leave your purse or valuables unattended.
Be alert to suspicious people when returning to your car.
Have your keys in hand to avoid delay getting in and lock the doors after entering.
Pub Date: 12/23/96