Howard County MD Sept 20 2011 At about 3:15 p.m. on a Friday afternoon, Officer Elaine Smith bent her ear to the radio on her shoulder and listened in to a report that was coming in.
“A fraud at Five Guys,” she repeated. “Probably fake money.”
Smith walked down to the food court at the Mall in Columbia and pulled out a notebook, taking down the details while a manager explained what happened. Someone had used a fraudulent $100 bill.
After viewing the security footage, Smith clicked her pen closed and told the manager to have a nice day; the problem would be solved.
It was just one of the many cases Smith deals with on a daily basis. As the beat officer from the Howard County Police Department for the mall and the surrounding lakefront area, Smith has seen fraud, theft and even a chase—and handled each one with an effectiveness that has earned her a Law Enforcement Award from the Maryland Retailers Association.
“I was very surprised when I found out because after I got nominated, I kind of forgot about it,” Smith said. “Others got the message before I even did!”
Smith had been working on the beat for a little over a year, and since then has taken on many of the problems the mall has faced and identified ways to solve them. She made herself directly available to mall merchants and officials by providing her cell phone number and learned the layout of the property to find escape routes.
“She provides great service and a great working relationship,” said one mall security official who declined to be named. “She takes this job extremely seriously and her help has had a calming effect.”
Smith said visibility plays a huge part in her efforts to mitigate crime at the mall, which some residents believe is a hub for gang activity.
In 2010, a Howard County police officials said at a meeting sponsored by the Association of Community Services of Howard County that if you shop at the Columbia Mall on a Friday or Saturday night, chances are, you have been in the presence of gang members.
“I don’t think that’s true at all, because we keep crime down,” she said of gang activity. “The visibility of many officers deters it. During a concert, for instance, we’ve got our people here and then we might have 20 others from the concert venue when they come in for lunch. People want to see police officers and know them and have that direct interaction. I get compliments and that’s how I know people feel safe.”
Over the last year, crime has fluctuated at the mall, which sees an estimated 18 million visitors annually. In January 2010, 81 calls were made to Howard County police from the mall, but in months like February and September the call volume was down to around 48 calls. In December, the volume went up to 97 calls.
“The most common problem in general is theft,” Smith said. “But that’s why I do a lot to make myself visible, because it’s a huge deterrent.”
Smith’s experience as a cop in Baltimore City and her efforts at the mall to have a more coordinated response effort have paid off—about 80 percent of crimes get resolved, she said; however the Five Guys fraud is still under investigation.
In one instance, Smith investigated a fraudulent sale made with a stolen credit card. After a chase on foot, Smith caught the suspect and she was able to connect that suspect with several other fraud cases, police said.
“She’s awesome. She’s always at our disposal,” said Todd Dardick, Macy’s loss prevention manager. “We’re always happy to see her walk in the door.”
Other security managers for the mall’s anchor stores agreed.
“She’s always here, and we can depend on her and she’s consistent,” said Lord & Taylor’s loss prevention manager Roy Dobson. “I know I‘m safe and she’ll be there if I need backup.”
Jessica Middleton, manager of the Healthy Island Smoothies stand, which has been a victim of fraud, said the award was well-deserved.
“She deserves [the award] and it’s a long time coming,” said Middleton.
But the job isn’t just about solving crime. As she roamed the mall floor, Smith spotted a toddler with a bag of gummy treats.
“Are any of those for me? Do you have any left for me?” Smith asked, bending down to talk to the boy. He stared at her wide-eyed, but did not want to give up a gummy. His father took the bag, smiling at Smith.
“I volunteered to be here. I’m a people person and it takes a special kind of person to work here,” Smith said