Printed on: December 06, 2012

Santa's helpers

By J.E. Mathewson

The sound of blaring police sirens usually is not something that makes children smile.

Hopefully, that will change Saturday, when 34 children get a chance to "Shop with a Cop."

Officers from the Idaho Falls Police Department, Idaho State Police, Bonneville County Sheriff's Office, Idaho Department of Fish and Game, and employees from probation, parole and the Bonneville County Jail will participate in the annual program.

The program typically serves underprivileged children throughout the United States.

There are variations, however.

In Bonneville County, children who have experienced a negative encounter with law enforcement officers can participate, no matter their economic background.

IFPD spokeswoman Joelyn Hansen said the program is meant to reach out and build trust with children who have a negative opinion of law enforcement officers. Generally, that negative opinion results from the arrest of a child's parents or other family members.

"They (the children) look at us as these people that are scary," Hansen said. "(Shop with a Cop) is a way for us to interact with them in a more positive experience."

The goal is to help children form a bond with law officers.

"We want to really affect those that have been adversely affected by law enforcement, and we can possibly make a difference," she said. "We really encourage our police officers to refer a child, particularly because they've either directly been involved in that situation or know the circumstances that go on."

The parents or guardian of the children selected must give their permission.

"They (the parents) have had their dealings with the police department, but they don't have a negative (view)," Hansen said. "But children are a little bit different. They don't always make the connection that 'Law enforcement is doing this to help my parent.' Police are doing their job and they're trying to make their family better. That's who we're trying to make an impact on."

Helping children learn to trust police officers is important, Hansen said.

Sometimes children witness a crime -- or are victims of crime -- but won't come forward out of fear. By participating in Shop with a Cop, they learn that police officers can help them.

The Saturday program starts with the children having breakfast with the officers. At 8 a.m., officers take the children on a Christmas shopping trip at Kmart. The children will ride in patrol cars with lights flashing and sirens blaring. The children buy gifts for themselves, as well as members of their immediate family.

Afterward, the gifts are wrapped by the Idaho Falls Civitan Club, which hosts the event each year.

Funding for the program mostly comes from a luncheon, also sponsored by the Civitan Club, held about two weeks before the event, Hansen said.

"We want people to know that they can trust officers and know that we can help them with situations that can be dangerous," Hansen said. "(This event) is really good for the officers and really good for the kids."