As many as 30 police officers will take part in a special police operation just five days before Christmas at Chatham’s Wal-Mart.
A joint effort between the Chatham-Kent OPP detachment and the Chatham-Kent Police Service, the uniformed officers will surge into the store and swarm the aisles.
Each officer will be on special escort duty that day. Their mission is to assist a similar number of children from around the municipality in doing some last-minute Christmas shopping.
The event is called Shop with a Cop and is the brainchild of OPP Sgt. Brian Knowler. He said he first encountered the concept back in 2009 while working out of an OPP detachment near Sault Ste. Marie.
“The Sault OPP and Sault police service have done this for quite some time. They reached out to neighbouring detachments and asked if we wanted to be involved,” Knowler said.
When he transferred to Caledon in 2012, he took the concept with him. He transferred to Chatham in January, and brought the idea up about a month ago.
“We decided to make it a collaboration with the Chatham-Kent Police Service. I spoke with Renee Cowell (CKPS public information officer) and the rest is history,” he said.
About 15 officers from each police organization will take part, volunteering their time to don their uniforms and reach the items on the top shelves for the children.
OPP Const. Janine Belanger loves the concept.
“It’s a really awesome thing. We’ll probably have about 30 children involved,” she said. “The idea is to form positive relationships between law enforcement and children.”
Knowler agreed. He said too often police are seen as a gun and a badge.
“With kids, they see the uniform, they see the gun belt, they see the cruisers with the lights going,” he said. “We want to build some ties; we want to build some bridges. A lot of these kids we’re going to be working with come from circumstances that are less than ideal. We want to show them we’re the good guys and we are just like them. We like to shop and we like to eat breakfast too.”
Cowell said while she’d heard of the program before, when Knowler contacted her, it was a surprise, and a welcome one at that.
“We wanted to jump on board immediately,” she said. “It’s a fantastic concept. Sometimes kids see us in a negative light. With this, they’ll see us as human beings and we are here to help.”
Cowell said it was easy to get officers to volunteer to take part.
“As soon as I put out an e-mail to our people, I was getting replies, from senior staff on down,” she said.
Chatham-Kent Children’s Services will choose the kids, who will be elementary school aged and in grades 2 through 8. They’ll come from across the municipality.
The day will involve each having a personal shopping cop assistant as they use a Wal-Mart gift card to make purchases for their family members, and themselves.
“The goal is for them to shop for their loved ones who maybe they otherwise wouldn’t be able to do so. And one of the rules is they must buy one thing for themselves,” Belanger said.
After scouring Wal-Mart for the perfect gifts, everyone will go to Lawson Hall on St. Clair Street for breakfast. Rumour has it Santa will stop by.
Knowler said the support for Shop with a Cop has been pouring in. Victim Services and Chatham-Kent Children’s Services are also on board for support. Public and business donations will cover such things as the cost of breakfast, gift wrap and supplies, as well as the gift cards that will power the little shoppers.
Knowler said shopping with little ones is quite an experience. The father of two boys said when he first did it, he shopped with a couple of little lads, so he was right at home. But that changed.
“One year, I was with a little blond-haired, blue-eyed girl, and I realized I was way out of my element,” he laughed. “To go from shopping for cars to the world of Barbies and My Little Pony was jarring.”
He described his little shopping buddy that day as “a sweetheart. By the end, we were great friends.” This despite the fact she may very well have had a stiff neck looking up at the 6-foot-5-inch Knowler.
If you think that’s an odd visual, Knowler said seeing a swarm of cops and kids hit the store to shop is funny as well.
“To see all these officers in a place where you wouldn’t normally expect them, it’s a pretty cool visual.”