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As eager shoppers streamed into Westfield Vancouver mall in search of Black Friday deals, Bob Kennedy raised the cabin of the Vancouver police Skywatch tower to overlook the cars they left behind.
From his 25-foot high perch, Kennedy can radio authorities if he spots anyone peering into car windows looking for an easy mark. He and other Neighbors On Watch volunteers work with mall security and Vancouver police to prevent car prowls during the holiday shopping season.
"Police need the help," said Dean Van Nostern, another volunteer. "If we can help just a little, they appreciate it."
The mall in Vancouver is just one of the shopping centers targeted by the sixth annual Operation Christmas Presence. Although Skywatch will remain at Westfield throughout December, Neighbors on Watch also patrol other parking lots with an eye out for suspicious activity.
"People are getting to know there's a police presence," said Cpl. Duane Boynton, the neighborhood police officer for the Van Mall area. "If we didn't do it, we'd see prowls go up."
Vancouver police received 1,239 car prowl reports in 2012, said Kim Kapp, a police spokeswoman. Of those, 170 occurred in November, 150 in December. There were actually more in October -- 254. So far this year, 1,143 car prowls have been reported, down 8 percent for the year to date.
"We do a focus because there's potential -- more cars, more opportunity. We want to reduce that opportunity by being present," Kapp said. "Most people who are auto prowlers are drug addicts of some sort. They need to steal. That $300 coach bag and iPhone in the drink holder is irresistible to a drug addict who needs fast cash."
The volunteer patrols provide a good deterrent, but shoppers also must do their part, Kapp said. The Vancouver Police Department offers these tips:
• Never leave valuables in plain sight in your vehicle. If you must store valuables in a vehicle place them in the trunk or hidden storage area prior to arriving at your destination. Thieves often watch drivers in parking lots to see where they store a valuable, wait for the vehicle to be unattended and break the window and steal the valuables. Hiding items under the seat doesn't work because it's the first place a thief will look.
• When shopping, don't get overloaded with too many packages. Keep at least one hand free so you can easily access your car keys to enter your vehicle without delay.
• Stay alert in public spaces. Know where your purse, packages, wallet, cell phone and other valuables are at all times, and never leave valuables unattended. Take note of anyone who may be following you. Don't hesitate to contact a store employee or security personnel if someone is acting suspicious.
• If you shop online, check mail daily and make sure all packages left at the doorstep are retrieved immediately. Work with your neighbors to keep an eye out for suspicious vehicles or people who may be in the area to steal mail or packages. Report all suspicious activity and get license numbers and descriptions of individuals.