It was less than two weeks before Christmas and Carolyn Gilbert was doing some shopping at Dadeland Station. She was putting bags in the trunk of her car when Miami-Dade police officer Kenny Bonnet pulled up.
Gilbert had committed a sin in Bonnet’s eyes: As she fiddled behind the vehicle, the driver’s side door of her car was open and her wallet and purse were exposed on the front seat.
“He told me, and rightfully so, it’s the holiday season and I should pay more attention. And he’s right,” said Gilbert, who is an attorney. “It’s so cool and so nice.”
Bonnet, a four-year veteran of the Miami-Dade police department’s Kendall District, was working a holiday task force patrol shift. Better known as the Grinch Busters, the cops — some in patrol vehicles, others in plain clothes and working undercover — flood the county’s malls during the height of the holiday season looking for bad guys.
Mostly though, they encounter shoppers to simply explain to them better ways to keep themselves and their property safe. A short while later and a few blocks away at another mall, Bonnet rolled down his window and asked a couple standing in front of a car if they needed any help.
“They were standing in front of their car like it was broken down,” said the officer. “Maybe they were scouting something. But it’s better to just make contact.”
Here, straight from the Grinch Busters, are some pro tips on how to prevent holiday shopping rip-offs:
▪ Be aware of your surroundings. Wearing earbuds and listening to music while walking through a crowded parking lot is a no-no.
▪ Always keep valuables out of sight and locked in your trunk.
▪ If you’re approached by a stranger who makes you nervous, get in your car, turn on the alarm, start honking the horn.
▪ The most vulnerable time for shoppers, police say, is walking from a store to your vehicle. Police say to park in well-lit areas and as close as you can to where you plan to shop.
Make eye contact. It’s less likely someone will do something.
Miami-Dade police officer Kenny Bonnet
“Most of these are crimes of opportunity,” said Bonnet. “I can’t stress enough that the presence and visibility [of police] is a great deterrent.”
Shoppers should “make eye contact. It’s less likely someone will do something. They’re more likely to move on to easier pickings,” he said.
At The Palms at Town and Country on Kendall Drive and Southwest 117th Avenue, Bonnet drove through parking aisles, slowing once when he saw a man bending down between cars — it turned out he had dropped his keys.
At the same mall, Bonnet stopped and approached another woman wearing earbuds and workout clothing. He told her it’s the holiday season and she needs to be safe and take the plugs out of her ears. She did, thanked the officer and moved on.
The Grinch Busters is composed of several different units of the Miami-Dade police department: patrol, general investigations, detectives, and this year even some assigned to a Homeland Security Task Force.
There have been no specific security threats directed at shopping malls. But the county, mirroring a model in New York City, has deployed its Counter Terror Initiative task force along with the Grinch Busters with the idea that visibility will both make the public feel safer and deter any potential attacks.
That patrol was beefed up earlier this week at Metrorail stations after a man claiming to be loyal to ISIS ignited a pipe bomb in Manhattan’s Times Square. Shoppers may also notice an increased police presence at transit hubs, the ports and shopping malls.
“The ultimate goal,” said Miami-Dade Police Maj. Hector Llevat, “is to stop something before it happens. We want people to feel safe and to know that we’re out there doing our job.”
Crime statistics supplied by Miami-Dade police show that in recent years during the six weeks between Thanksgiving and just after New Year’s, criminal activity at local malls has dropped. There is no way to tell whether that’s mainly because of the task force, but police are certain the show of force doesn’t hurt.
Vehicle burglaries dropped from 28 in 2015 to 17 last year around shopping malls in Miami-Dade. Over the same period, thefts are down more than 35 percent. Robberies have gone from five in 2015 to just one last year. And, according to police, there were only five stolen vehicles during the six-week period over the past two years.
Bonnet’s job this week was to trek from mall to mall, from Town and Country in West Kendall, to Dadeland and Dadeland Station and The Greenery malls in East Kendall, and south to The Falls near Coral Reef.
A ride-along with the officer, which lasted several hours, was mostly uneventful. People lugged presents from stores. Seasonal music blared. Some folks were dressed in workout gear, on the way to or back from the gym. Others were visiting restaurants. The Grinches who prey on holiday shoppers were nowhere to be seen, which was a good thing.
“We’re here looking for people who might need a little info on how to be safe,” said Bonnet. “And that’s a great workday for me.”