Montgomery County police Sgt. Sean Gagen and the rest of his squad went into work braced for the worst on Black Friday in the patrol district surrounding Westfield Wheaton mall.
By 6 a.m., the officers were pleasantly surprised to find the notoriously hectic shopping day did not meet their expectations following an initial early-morning rush. By midmorning, Gagen revealed his and the other shift supervisors’ secret to success: When it comes to managing traffic and anxious shoppers in Wheaton’s central business district, it’s all about the prep work.
“In the lead up to the whole shopping season kicking off today, myself, Lt. [Kevin] Sullivan and the leader of our CBD team, Sgt. [Adam] Currie had a chance to meet with the security director down here, which gives us a chance to sort of reassess our resources,” Gagen said as he made another circuit around the mall parking lots and garages. “Where do I want to put my guys knowing what these guys are going to be doing, that sort of thing.”
By 7 a.m. Gagen and one of his newer officers had responded to their first call, a woman with a flat tire at the intersection of Layhill and Norbeck roads.
As the younger officer changed the tire, Gagen asked the driver, 19-year-old Sandy Spring resident Samyia Waters, about her work. She told him she had been on her way home from working the overnight shift at the Target in Westfield Wheaton, which opened at 9 p.m. on Thanksgiving.
“It was crazy, but then it just died … I was shocked, they had these giant pallets of PlayStation 3s and then they were just gone,” she said. “Did you all get to do any Black Friday shopping?”
The officers exchanged a look, then a laugh.
“No, ma’am,” Gagen said with a chuckle. “I do all my shopping online.”
Perhaps Gagen’s penchant for online shopping may be another reason crowds at the mall are quick to die down after the opening rush; so-called “Cyber Monday” offers extended deals to web-savvy shoppers. Just the same, many area shopping centers, including Westfield, take measures to lessen the drama for themselves, police and shoppers, said Sidney Woods, Westfield’s marketing director.
“Usually people who are out on Black Friday are in good spirits and expect to have to wait in lines,” Woods said. “But we always work closely with the Montgomery County Police Department with the increased traffic from the holiday season … so we’re sure to have an adjusted plan to handle it already in place.”
Another proactive measure taken by stores is hiring off-duty officers to beef up the presence of security, Gagen said, pointing out at least seven county police cruisers — and one conspicuously “unmarked” Dodge Charger — lined up in front of the Best Buy at 10901 Georgia Ave. Along with the added security for stores, the off-duty officers receive a bonus and Gagen sees fewer calls; all in all a win-win scenario, he said.
Finally, just before 9 a.m. during Gagen’s third drive through to check on the mall lots, the shift’s first shopping-related call is dispatched for a shoplifter threatening security guards at J.C. Penney. By the time Gagen arrived, the suspect, 16, had been placed face down on the floor of the security office after he reportedly told guards he had a knife and took a swing at one of his detainers.
“What happened?” Gagen asked the teen. “Are you going to behave if I sit you up?”
“Yes sir,” came the response. Then, after a thoughtful pause: “I was being stupid,”
Within minutes Gagen and another officer were rummaging through the boy’s backpack, using the receipts he had on him to determine which items he bought and which he had stolen. Gagen’s backup also found a pair of scissors, likely used to remove price tags from stolen items, in the pack.
“Looks like he did some shopping and some shoplifting,” Gagen said as he gave security the first estimate of just over $100 in stolen merchandise. “So he went into J.C. Penney, Target and Dick’s and said, ‘Okay, I’m going to buy some of this stuff and the rest? It’s going into the bag, anyway.’”
By 10 a.m. Gagen was on his way back to the station to check in with his lieutenant, who had arrived earlier and received a briefing from Gagen on the surprisingly light traffic.
“If it looks easy … ,” Gagen said with a laugh, recounting the precautions he and his fellow supervisors had taken earlier. “All these steps go a long way toward making this seem like just another day in the Wheaton CBD.”