It's horses, not reindeer, that signal the start of the Christmas season at shopping centers in the San Fernando Valley.
On Monday, Los Angeles Police announced that mounted and foot patrols are being added at major shopping plazas in the area in an effort to cut down on crimes that usually increase with holiday shopping volume. Shoppers often are victims of robberies, purse snatchers, automobile thefts and break-ins during the peak shopping period.
In North Hollywood, police said four officers on horses and another two on foot will patrol the commercial corridor along Laurel Canyon Boulevard near Victory Boulevard during the next six weeks. The area is bounded by Laurel Plaza on the south and Valley Plaza on the north.
Police said four officers on foot beats already have begun holiday season patrols at the Northridge Fashion Center, and six mounted officers will be added later. The same is planned for other Valley shopping areas, including the commercial strip on Topanga Canyon Boulevard in Woodland Hills from the Promenade Mall to Topanga Plaza.
Sgt. Kent Setty said the department plans to use all 16 of its available mounted officers in the Valley during the shopping season.
It is the third consecutive year that mounted patrols have been used in North Hollywood in the roughly 10-square-block area shared by small shops, department stores, movie theaters and parking lots.
Compared to previous years, horse patrols have cut in half the number of shopper-related crimes such as robberies, car thefts and break-ins, said Capt. Rick Dinse. He said the high-profile patrols have worked so well that the department may consider adding permanent foot or horse patrols in the highly concentrated commercial area.
"Any time you have a horse patrol, it is very visible," Dinse said. "It is going to have a deterring effect" on crime.
"We are looking at expanding" to permanent patrols, Dinse added. "We think we might be able to justify it."
Police said the horse and foot patrols give officers better maneuverability in areas with crowded parking lots, heavy pedestrian traffic and many adjoining shopping areas.
Officer Robert Brannon, one of the mounted police assigned to the North Hollywood area, said a horse gives him a better view of the area than he can get in a patrol car.
"From up here, I can see from one end of the parking lot to the other. I am also very visible. That's the deterrent," Brannon said. "We can cover a lot of ground."
The return of the holiday patrols was welcomed by North Hollywood merchants.
Nick Imp, a sales manager at the Sears store in Valley Plaza, said the increased police presence improves security for customers and employees at the stores and has an added positive effect. It's a "great attraction" for shoppers, he said.
"People like seeing them here. They want their kids to see the horses and the police officers. It helps make the area more attractive."