Shopping with the cops
Nevada Highway Patrol’s Shop With A Cop program lets needy kids buy presents for families—and it’s good public relations, too
Santa was late. But that wasn’t a problem for more than 100 kids from low-income families waiting to Shop With a Cop at the Kmart on Oddie Boulevard.
Kids huddled with parents and other family members outside, waiting to catch a glimpse of Santa—and to get into the store and go on a shopping spree with a uniformed officer from one of a half-dozen local law enforcement agencies, from the Washoe County Sheriff’s Office to the school district’s police force.
Seven-year-old Mariah, a student at Roger Corbett Elementary School in Reno, pulled her pink coat up over her head to stay warm. She clutched a sheet of typing paper with words in crayon on both sides.
“Is that your shopping list?” I ask.
“Yeah, one side is all hers—then there’s a little bit for the rest of us on the other side,” says her mom, Kourtney. Kourtney raises Mariah and her other two children by herself these days.
“I told my boyfriend to leave, told him we’d do just fine without him,” Kourtney confides. “Now I’m not so sure.”
Yet Kourtney feels blessed, as she looks around at those gathered to shop with a cop.
“All these people who don’t have anything …”
A low-flying plane whooshes overhead. All eyes turn toward the sky. Santa? No. Southwest Airlines.
Then, cops being more punctual than St. Nick, it’s time to get started. Kourtney leaves Mariah and her fellow Corbett Elementary student Maria Prado in the capable hands of two Washoe County sheriff’s deputies.
“OK, where do you want to start shopping?” asks Deputy Luke Miller, looking at Maria. It’s Maria’s birthday. She just turned 10 years old. And she makes shopping decisions like a pro.
“For my mother,” she says, and Miller deftly maneuvers a cart toward several racks of women’s sweaters. There, also perusing sweaters with a girl about Maria’s age, is Sheriff Dennis Balaam.
“Hi, sir, how are you?” Miller greets his boss, then helps Maria choose a white turtleneck sweater for her mom.
“How about something else for Mom?” he says. “Some pants?”
A rack of women’s slacks is nearby.
“Those aren’t the right kind,” Maria says decisively. She struggles to describe what kind of pants her mom wears. She turns to me: “Do you speak Spanish?”
“No, I don’t.”
“It’s OK, we can look until we find them,” Miller says. He’s a patient officer of the law. “We can look at every single thing here.”
The Nevada Highway Patrol started participating in the nationwide Shop With a Cop event about 14 years ago. But the program kind of fell apart for a while. State Trooper Janay Shervan took over the program five years ago and melded it into a joint affair with the police from Reno, Sparks, Washoe County and the University of Nevada, Reno.
"'Shop with a cop’ didn’t necessarily mean ‘shop with a highway patrolman,’ “ she says. Shervan spends most of the morning scurrying around with a clipboard keeping the event running smoothly.
This year, she says, the program will serve 120 families—about 40 more than last year. Cops are briefed to make sure that children—who in most cases shop with merely a list and no parent to help out—remember to get something for every member of the family. Each family member should get needed items, like shoes, coats and clothes, and each should also get something, well, frivolous.
“It’s not just about buying warm jackets and new shoes, though they do,” Shervan says. “It wouldn’t be Christmas without the fun things.”
It’s great for a child to be able to pass along the bounty purchased while shopping with a cop to her family on Christmas morning.
“If a child opens presents but sees Mommy and Daddy sitting there with nothing, she’ll remember that,” Shervan says. “There’s nothing better than for the child to give a gift and say, ‘Daddy, I got this just for you.'”
While Miller helps Maria try on some black boots, Mariah and her cohort, Deputy Tom Radley, hit the shoe aisles. Mariah is a shopping whiz. Practically everything she sees she likes and must have. No matter the size. No matter the brand.
“And who are those Barbie shoes for?”
“Do you think those are a little big for your sister?”
Radley has a 5-year-old daughter of his own, and it shows. He handles Mariah’s demands with calm determination. Helping Mariah try on a pair of snow boots featuring a popular cartoon character gives him a chance to show off his expertise.
“Can you name all of the Powerpuff Girls?”
“Buttercup, Blossom and….”
“Good, now wiggle, wiggle, wiggle your toes. How do these feel? Are they tight?”
In a mere hour or two, the cops and kids are stationed in long lines at cash registers. Each pair of shoppers gets $100 to $175, depending on family size. The money comes from the donations of several local charitable organizations. The gifts are wrapped and delivered to parents who’ll have to wait in suspense to see just how their child shopped.
The end of the shopping expedition is a moving scene—and that’s not just because Santa has finally arrived and roams the store greeting children with hearty ho-hos.
“When you see the kids and you see the carts, then you understand what Christmas is all about,” Shervan says. “I can’t tell you how many officers cry.”
Of course, Shop With a Cop is good public relations, building the image that most cops are regular folks trying to make their city a safer, better place. And, if Saturday was any indication, the method works.
“Cops always take care of you," Mariah concludes. "Every year and every day."