BURLINGTON - Inside the Burlington Mall, great care has been taken to give shoppers that warm, fuzzy holiday feeling. There are carolers dressed in top hats, Christmas lights dangling overhead, and a giant Santa's village with, of course, the big man himself.
But in the mall parking lot, where Burlington police officers circle in squad cars and stand post at busy intersections, the holiday cheer gets served up with a stiff shot of reality. With the crowds come the criminals, police know. Shoplifters, pickpockets, and car burglars - this is their time of year, too. And that, combined with the holiday traffic at major malls, spells trouble for many suburban police departments, whose officers will work long hours in the weeks ahead to deal with the holiday crush.
"It's that time of year again," said Burlington police Sergeant Glen Mills, shortly after reporting to work Friday, the first day of the holiday shopping season. "Here we go. More crime, more reports. . . . Even a minor arrest will generate hours of paperwork for us."
It is a problem that police officers face in many communities with major retail destinations. The holiday season may be about peace on Earth and good will toward men - in theory. But police officers in Burlington, Braintree, Watertown, and other communities know otherwise.
Last year, three times a day, on average, between Thanksgiving and Christmas, Burlington police responded to calls at the Burlington Mall, an 86-acre retail giant just off Interstate 95 - far more than usual, according to police.
One store last year reported $2,300 worth of goods stolen. Three shoppers reported being scammed out of $10,600 by a con artist posing as a salesman selling plasma televisions. There were 25 car accidents reported to police within a few blocks of the mall - a figure that does not include minor fender-benders, police say, and so represents just a percentage of last year's holiday shopping accidents. And then there were the arguments - usually over parking spots.
"That happens all the time," said Burlington patrolman Jim Tigges. "Mostly, at Christmastime, it's the usual. 'Tis the season, we say. I had to break up two women fighting last year."
And the Burlington Mall is hardly the only shopping center generating police reports this time of year. Last year, between Thanksgiving and Christmas, the Watertown police responded to 111 calls at the Arsenal Mall and Watertown Mall. And in Braintree, the South Shore Plaza kept local police even busier. Police there reported 295 incidents at the mall between Thanksgiving and New Year's Eve 2006, including 52 larcenies, 47 auto accidents, 32 medical calls, 16 disturbances, three assaults, and one case in which a customer reported that store employees were being "verbally abusive to her."
Braintree police Deputy Chief Russell Jenkins said the holiday season has become the department's busiest time of year. To prepare this year, Braintree police got creative. The department opened a substation near the food court inside the mall where officers are able to file reports, if necessary. "It's just more efficient," said Jenkins.
But it will not replace the need for officers walking beats. During the holiday season, malls do more than just hire security guards. They often have on-duty police officers patrolling the property as part of their shifts, and off-duty police officers hired to work security details.
For the detail work, the officers get paid well - as much as $40 an hour or more, well above most officers' hourly wage. But these shifts, combined with their regular hours, will take a toll on police departments this month, officers say, especially suburban departments not accustomed to dealing with high volumes of people on a daily basis.
"There's a huge burden on a small town," said Braintree Sergeant Richard Curtin, headed out Friday to work a security detail at the South Shore Plaza. "We're already up to two cars broken into and three pocketbooks stolen - today," Curtin said around 2 p.m. "And we've got quite a ways to go."
As she spoke Friday morning, shortly after the mall opened at 5 a.m., it was still dark outside. The mall was sleepy - even with hundreds of shoppers already walking the concourse to get a head start on the season. But by 7:30 a.m., almost half of the parking lot's 5,610 parking spots were filled. And by 10 a.m., when Mills pulled into the parking lot in his unmarked squad car, the place was bustling with shoppers toting large plastic bags.
"It's a great time to be a criminal," he said as he cruised the parking lot, eyeing the GPS units that people had left on their dashboards. Pointing to one unit in particular, he said, "If we were bad guys right now, we'd jump out and grab that baby. There's nobody out here. Nobody would ever know we broke into that car."
He said shoppers need to be smart and that there is only so much the police can do. On the busiest shopping days of the year, the Burlington Mall feels bigger than the town itself. And with the crowds, police officers say, there will be some nasty days ahead.
The low point will come around mid-December, said Sergeant Mike McDade, when people really start to feel the pressure of buying presents for their loved ones.
Then there will be anger and maybe some fighting, shouting, and perhaps a little crying. In more than a decade of keeping the peace at the mall, McDade has seen just about everything.
"I've had at least a half dozen times over the last 14 years when people would break down and cry, telling me how stressed they are and how they can't handle it," he said. "I always tell them to take a breather before heading into the stores."
Keith O'Brien can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.