As anyone in law enforcement knows, crime often comes home for the holidays. In fact, with more shoppers out and about, more money changing hands, and plenty of pricey presents tempting burglars and thieves, November and December can be prime time for criminal activity.
In Conway, Ark., local authorities recently embarked on a seasonal crime-prevention patrol aimed at keeping the area’s popular shopping malls safe. This past holiday season, leaders of the Little Rock suburb, which aims to become a regional shopping destination for central Arkansas, added $11,500 to the Conway Police Department’s overtime budget, enabling the agency to dedicate three of its 97 officers to full-time, off-duty shopping mall patrol.
“The primary message that I try to get out would be that we’re offering an environment where you can feel secure and safe,” says Lt. Danny Moody, a 23-year veteran with the Conway PD. “While on Shop Secure, [officers] are only devoted to working preventive patrol.”
Play your car stereo too loud in a shopping mall parking lot, and CPD officers will shut it down. Lose your child in the holiday shopping crowd, and they’ll help you locate the lost tyke. No shoppers have yet asked for an escort to their car, but if they did, officers would do that, too, says Chief Randall Aragon.
If a crime does occur at any of the city’s four major shopping areas, officers on Shop Secure duty will detain the suspect and hand him over to a regular patrol officer for further processing, so they can remain at their mall posts. One of the hallmarks of the program is that Shop Secure officers cannot be dispatched to any other calls off shopping mall property, unless they are of an urgent, life-or-death nature.
The preventive patrols can also be extended to other large retailers that are not part of a shopping center per se—like the city’s two busy Wal-Mart Supercenters. One officer is assigned to work each of the assigned three quadrants in the program: the city’s northern sector, eastern sector, and downtown/west sector.
Conway has good reason to encourage shopping in its city limits: More than 67 percent of its operating budget and general fund is generated by sales tax and federal turnback funds. The city, which has an estimated population of 53,000, received a major shot in the arm in 2004 with the opening of Conway Commons, a shopping mall spread over approximately 85 acres of former dairy farmland.
The sprawling complex, anchored by national chain stores like Target, PetSmart, and The Home Depot, attracts thousands of shoppers and visitors daily. The city is also host to Towne Centre mall and shopping centers in the downtown and Old Morrilton Highway areas.
“Most people in our county, and surrounding cities even outside our county, now flock to Conway shopping, [instead of] making a weekly exodus to Little Rock, about 28 miles away,” says Chief Aragon. “It’s an opportunity for Conway to become the ‘shopping mecca’ for this section of Arkansas.”
Over the decades, Conway’s local economy has gone through a variety of changes. Agriculture once drove its economic well being, as did the manufacturing industry. Educational interests also played a part, as the city is home to the University of Central Arkansas and two private colleges.
Community leaders are now seeking to diversify the economic base of Arkansas’ seventh-largest city. The city is actively courting high-tech industries that offer white-collar employment—or, as an assistant to the mayor cheekily put it, “No jobs where people are going to lose a finger.”
Attracting tourism dollars has proven problematic, as the Bible Belt city is located in a dry county that restricts alcohol sales. Retail is a promising alternative.
Aragon says that no major criminal incidents took place at any of Conway’s shopping malls during last year’s Shop Secure program. He attributes the dearth of criminal activity to a visible police patrol that makes crowded shopping areas less attractive to those seeking to commit crimes of opportunity.
Crime-prevention education is also part of the Shop Secure program, and shopping safety advice is disseminated to the public on Aragon’s weekly live radio show and local TV program.
“When people go shopping, especially this time of the year, a lot of times they’re focused on exactly that: shopping,” says Moody. “They become so involved with that focus, they let their personal guard down and don’t always think about preventing themselves from being victimized.”
Bryn Bailer, a former newspaper reporter, is a contributing editor for Police. She lives in Tucson, Ariz.
Conway Police Department
Chief: Randall Aragon
Size: 97 sworn
Population served: 53,713
Service area: 40 square miles
Calls for service (2004): 28, 653
Department budget (annual): $8 million
Starting pay (annual): $26,672
Veteran officer transfer: $33,297
Retirement: Vests at five years
Uniform allowance: Issued by department
Average temp. Feb.: 32/55
Average temp. Aug.: 68/92
Annual precipitation (inches): 47
Cars: Ford Crown Victorias; some Chevrolet Impalas
Service weapons: SIG P220