A sudden beeping interrupted the quiet hum from the engine of Montgomery County police Sgt. James Brown’s Dodge Charger on Thursday night as he looked for suspicious activity outside the Macy’s entrance to Westfield Montgomery Mall.
“Just wanted to give you the heads up and run some things by you, Sarge,” Officer Chad Bleggi said a few seconds later, calling his supervisor’s cellphone from a drug arrest a few blocks away. “… I asked him if he had any more drugs on him and he told me yes; he’d been hiding some down his pants.”
Brown, the leader of the county’s Police Community Action Team, shook his head and smiled after Bleggi had finished reviewing the drugs found on the suspect and the charges in his report.
“My guys are really good at talking to people,” Brown said. “That’s one thing that we find a lot of down here at Montgomery Mall, not so many people selling drugs, but the boosters and shoplifters will have something on them because, in a lot of cases, they’re committing crimes to fuel a drug habit.”
Since Nov. 27, Brown and the PCAT team, a unit designed to rotate between the county’s six police districts for temporary details to address quality-of-life crime trends, has been shifting on an almost-daily basis between five of the county’s busiest shopping destinations to make sure opportunistic criminals aren’t taking advantage of the holiday shopping rush to shoplift or break into unattended cars.
The team’s deployment reflects a recent trend; while total countywide crime has declined every year from 2009 to 2011, total crime during the busy holiday shopping season has increased during that same three-year period. Crimes committed in November and December accounted for 14.7 percent of all crime in 2009, while those same two months contributed to 16 percent of total crime last year, according to crime statistics.
“It gives us a presence,” Brown said, discussing the holiday shopping detail he helped initiate five years ago. “We hit all six districts and the whole purpose is you’ve got eight or nine more officers around these shopping areas on top of regular patrol officers and you never know where we’re going to be.”
While the team takes part in other initiatives during the year, the numbers indicate Brown’s officers are busiest during the months of November and December, reflecting countywide statistics. In 2011, PCAT officers logged 189 field interviews with suspicious individuals — mostly around shopping areas — accounting for 26 percent of the year’s field interview total for the team. Since January this year, the PCAT teams —two until they were rolled into one team in April — have issued 723 citations, made 32 drunken-driving arrests and 370 drug arrests, served 42 warrants and seized over $31,600, among other accomplishments, Brown said.
By 6:30 p.m., four of Brown’s eight officers had made stops that led to drug seizures and arrests around Montgomery Mall. Brown himself had contacted Macy’s security to warn them about a suspicious man who appeared to be shoplifting.
Police Chief J. Thomas Manger has recommended forming six District Community Action Teams — one for each police district — modeled after the PCAT teams, in his latest budget proposal to the County Council, Brown said. In the meantime, Brown and his eight officers will continue to serve as one of the department’s best crime overflow options, jumping from district to district to address quality-of-life crime trends and keeping holiday criminals on their toes.
“You’ve got about eight of my team out here tonight, so give me a call if you guys get something going on later on tonight,” Brown told the Macy’s security official before hanging up. “That’s the real benefit of my team; good people see us and feel safer, but the bad people see us, too, and they say, ‘Wow, look at all these cops! I’m not coming back here anymore.’”