Horses Kick Mall Security up a Notch in Florida

Nov. 26--LEESBURG -- For the next month, Lake Square Mall shoppers can expect holiday deals, bustling crowds and -- horses?

That's because deputies and volunteers from the Lake County Sheriff's Mounted Posse will be patrolling the mall parking lot each weekend through Christmas Eve to keep customers safe and try to deter holiday crime.

"It's a good preventive," said Sheriff's Sgt. Christie Mysinger, who credits the operation with thwarting car burglaries and thefts in years past.

It is just one way law-enforcement agencies across the county are beefing up security to combat the influx of seasonal crime associated with holiday shopping sprees.

This weekend, the six Eustis police officers who make up the city's Targeting Areas of Community Concern team are making the rounds at shopping centers, police said. In Mount Dora, police will be on the lookout for shoplifters at Kmart, Wal-Mart and Target stores along U.S. Highway 441.

"Most people have a tendency to kind of behave when they see a badge," said holiday shopper Keith Sorensen of Leesburg. Standing outside Lake Square Mall on Friday, Sorensen said he was impressed by the police presence.

"It's a bit comforting," Sorensen said of the four Leesburg officers and two deputy sheriffs roaming the mall among customers.

With 50,000 to 60,000 shoppers expected during the Thanksgiving weekend, mall officials said they're welcoming any and all security help.

"When you have an increase of people, there's a higher risk. Just them [police] being there makes our job a little bit easier," said Shelley Sloan, director of marketing for Lake Square Mall. Sloan added that law enforcement will work with mall guards but declined to discuss details about the mall's holiday security operations because of corporate policy.

It's not just an increase in police officers that dissuades potential thieves, said Ellen Davis, spokeswoman for the National Retail Federation. Retail outlets typically have their own sophisticated security methods during the holidays, she added.

"Law enforcement have stretched resources," Davis said. "It's about getting them [police] to see it as an issue."

Leesburg police Cpl. Dave Petroski said police are taking the holiday patrols seriously. At least two officers will be assigned to the mall until Jan. 1, he said.

As for the horse posse, Mysinger said a deputy and several volunteers will ride through the parking lot every Friday, Saturday and Sunday night leading up to Christmas, watching for break-ins and purse snatchers.

"They can see," Mysinger said. "They've got the advantage of elevation."

Leesburg police said they saw few car burglaries at the mall last year. But they remind shoppers to heed holiday safety tips.

People are advised to lock their cars and put purchases in the trunk, Petroski said. Also, never leave bags or purses unattended in stores. And anyone who feels uncomfortable leaving the mall at night should call an officer or security guard for an escort, police advise.

Copyright (c) 2006, The Orlando Sentinel, Fla. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Business News.