By Bob Balgemann

Atlanta police are looking to the past for help in curbing an increase in vehicular burglaries.

New officers are hitting the street on foot, as they did years ago, to provide a more personal presence in trouble spots, including shopping centers, hotels, malls and residential areas.

The department-wide initiative began Aug. 7 in Zone 2, which takes in Buckhead and environs, after being launched earlier in other zones.

“We follow crime trends,” said Maj. James Sellers, the Zone 2 commander. “Now we’re having more car break-ins than in the past.”

Global Positioning System (GPS) units, laptop computers, golf clubs, credit cards and cash are at the top of the list of items thieves covet.

“One proactive way to fight that is to go to the community and say, ‘Don’t leave these items in your car,’ ” Sellers said. “We’re deploying (new officers) on foot in commercial and residential areas. They stop in at businesses and talk to people; they find out other things that are going on in the area.”

Police Chief Richard Pennington provided Zone 2 with nine officers fresh from the training academy to participate in the 90-day program.

Foot patrols yield numerous benefits, zone supervisors said, among them getting to know people personally, instead of just waving from a patrol car.

“It’s community-oriented policing,” Sellers said.

Additionally, “foot patrols help keep the patrol officers on the street,” Sgt. Ron Bender said. Officers on foot “handle lesser offenses, which can take a lot of time.”

Among the problem areas for thefts from vehicles are Lenox Square, AmeriSuites, Lindbergh Place Apartments, Phipps Place Mall, Aventine at Lindbergh, Piedmont Center, DoubleTree Hotel, Home Depot Plaza, Piedmont Hospital, Wal-Mart Shopping Plaza, Berkley Heights and Peachtree Park neighborhoods, and the Tower Place and L.A. Fitness Center parking decks. Zone 2 police have received reports of 154 automobile break-ins this year.

One recent afternoon, Sgt. Bender took five officers to two shopping centers for a round of foot patrols. After being inspected military-style at the precinct office on Maple Drive, the group headed out aboard the zone’s truancy van.

The increased presence already has paid dividends.

Two boys, ages 15 and 16, were arrested in the first week for soliciting donations near Wal-Mart, pretending to be part of a high school fundraising effort. Bender said they were charged with theft by deception and criminal trespass.

Police are looking for three other teens who are bilking the public in much the same way.

“We want to be a deterrent, and we want to make arrests,” the sergeant said. “We randomly bounce around to different locations so they don’t know where we’ll be next.”

Of the massive Wal-Mart center at 1800 Howell Mill Road, he said: “This is the optimum place for foot patrol. There are a lot of nooks and crannies with all the businesses.”

Bender dropped Officers Terrance Epps and Gabriel McElroy at the Home Depot Plaza.

He continued to the Wal-Mart Shopping Plaza, which also has Ross, Office Depot, PetsMart and T.J. Maxx, with Officers Tommy Atzert, Nicholas Mercado and A. Ward.

Epps said that being a police officer is something he always wanted to do.

Starting on foot patrol is of particular interest because he will be assigned permanently to Zone 2, a mix of businesses and residential areas. Patrolling on foot will allow him to see the area from a different perspective and to become acquainted with residents and business owners.

McElroy said he saw a lot of crime “when I was a kid. Now I have a chance to do something about it.”

“We want to walk the parking lots,” Atzert said as the van reached Wal-Mart. “This is where a lot of the break-ins are. And shoplifters. We’ll check the cars, and if valuables are visible, we’ll leave a notice on the windshield.”

Officers will drop by most stores in the center “to let them know we’re in the area,” Mercado said. “I give them my cellphone number.”

The officers always patrol in teams, believing there’s safety in numbers.

Mercado immediately found a car parked in a space for the disabled that did not have a placard or license plate permitting the use of the space. He wrote out a ticket and tucked it under one of the windshield wipers.

“We don’t give out warnings,” he said.

The passenger’s side window had been left open, but no valuables were in plain view.

“My biggest thing is handicapped parking,” Mercado said. “My mom is handicapped.”

Officers checked crevices in the covered parking lot, which also includes spaces for the adjacent Alexander apartments. “We might find people doing drugs in a corner,” Mercado said. “People will drop off merchandise they’ve stolen and then come back later to get it.”

A pickup truck had a GPS unit affixed to the windshield, so Mercado placed a warning note under one of the windshield wipers. It read: “Always remove valuables from your seats and/or floor area before arriving at your destination.”

To put the motorist at ease, one side of the slip read: “This is not a citation!”

The officers made their way to the second level of the shopping center, where more businesses and more cars, trucks and vans provided more targets.

“This is such a large area,” Atzert said. “A lot of people have said they’re glad we’re here.”