Stores and shops across Atmore and Escambia County began experiencing the holiday business rush last weekend. And, while retail outlets were getting ready to usher in their busiest time of the year, another element was also formulating its holiday game plan.
Each year, some of the good cheer and festive atmosphere created by the onset of Christmas is offset by the work of professional and amateur criminals who take advantage of increased foot traffic and a hurried pace to also enjoy their busiest and most successful season.
Thieves prey on residents who leave gifts and other valuables unsecured inside their homes; they look for unlocked cars and careless shoppers.
“It happens all the time,” Atmore Police Chief Chuck Brooks said of the loss to thieves of Christmas presents, money and other valuables during the period from Thanksgiving Day until Christmas.
Chief Deputy Mike Lambert of the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office agreed.
“It’s a busy time, there are a lot of people around and everybody’s excited,” Lambert said. “With the rush to get their shopping done, people tend to let their guard down some.”
Brooks said police would do what they could to help prevent such losses. But, he added, the most effective deterrent is to use good common sense.
“We’re going to be out in full force throughout the holidays, patrolling around the stores and the parking lots,” said Brooks. “Basically, folks need to pay attention to their surroundings. They need to secure all their valuables when they’re out shopping. If they can, they need to put them in an unseen compartment or put a blanket over them. Oh, yeah, and make sure your doors are locked, on your vehicle and on your home. You’d be surprised how many people don’t.”
Lambert noted that unlocked doors are a key factor in most automobile and home break-ins, but agreed that locked doors are not a complete defense against a seasoned or desperate criminal who spots presents, purses or other items of value in plain view.
“If you leave (valuables) by the windows, you’re asking for trouble,” he said.
The police chief and the chief deputy agreed that shopping in pairs or groups is one good way to discourage criminals.
“Try to take somebody with you,” said Lambert, who also cautioned rural residents that they are not immune to the theft of property from inside vehicles. “Walk with confidence when you leave a store; criminals look for weak targets. And why tote a purse when you’re shopping in such a crowd? Take your ID and what you have to have to pay for your purchases and leave the rest at home or in the car.”
Brooks and Lambert each promised that an increased law enforcement lookout for thefts and burglaries would not mean that enforcement of traffic safety laws would be ignored.
“We encourage everybody to slow down and enjoy the holiday season,” said the Atmore police chief. “Watch where you’re driving; don’t text and drive. Just slow down a little and use common sense.”
Lambert, who said ECSO patrol officers would focus on speeders, impaired drivers and those not wearing seat belts, threw in another alternative that could help one avoid being victimized.
“If you have a weapon, great, take it with you when you go shopping,” he said. “While you’re walking to and from your car, keep your hand in your purse or where you can get to (the weapon) in time if you were to need it.”