Wal-Mart shoppers this Sunday morning in North Little Rock were greeted by a huge police presence at the front entrance and by a fleet of police cruisers lining the front of the store and dotted throughout the parking lot. The officers weren’t responding to an emergency, however, but had arrived to participate in the North Little Rock Police Department’s 12th annual Shop With a Cop event.

The program was begun 12 years ago by North Little Rock police officer Tommy Norman when he took five children Christmas shopping, and has since grown into a huge shopping trip with each child selected receiving a $200 gift card to fund their shopping spree.

“I was looking for ways the North Little Rock Police Department could give back to the community during the holidays,” Norman said. “I did a Google search and found several police departments that did Shop With a Cop. We were doing things to reach out to the community but I wanted to try and do something on a larger scale.”

This year, 80 children from 37 families in the community were paired with officers from the department, fanning out in all directions throughout the Wal-Mart Supercenter on McCain. Norman looked on, a broad smile on his face, calling out greetings to people, and acting at times as a traffic cop sending people in different directions as the search for the perfect gift moved into high gear. He said in addition to the excitement of the moment, the event builds bridges to the future between the department and the community.

“Shopping is fun for a lot of people, but especially kids. Kids love shopping!” Norman said. “The fact that they have a police officer next to them when they walk out those doors, I want them to know that the community loves them and that the friendship doesn’t stop here. It lasts forever.”

One of the officers participating in the event, Sgt. Brian Dedrick, serves as the main contact for the program and is the department’s Public Information Officer, secured a 501(c)(3) designation by the IRS several years ago, allowing it to accept donations which are tax deductible as charitable contributions.

“We were getting a lot of money in and we wanted to make sure we did everything right,” Dedrick said. “We actually work through the year helping families in need, so while this is our primary event, we don’t restrict the good this does to one season.”

Dedrick said the program received several sizable donations that have enabled this year’s event. Donations totaling $25 thousand were received from the family of Liz Masching, a friend of Norman’s, who died unexpectedly last January. A request for donations to North Little Rock Shop with a Cop as a memorial in lieu of flowers raised that amount. Another $12,000 came as a donation from Jacksonville native Clinton McDonald, a defensive tackle with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

“He contacted us last year, telling us he wanted to purchase every gift card for every child participating,” Dedrick said. “We received the donation too late in the year to use it last year but were able to put it to good use this year.”

In addition to the $200 shopping trip for each child, each family received a food box from Hogg’s Meat Market, donated by Melody and Steve Sims of Red Door Gallery in North Little Rock.

The Shop With a Cop Christmas shopping trip is open to children between the ages of 5 and 12 who live in North Little Rock and are from a working single parent household. Applications are taken throughout the month of October and are available at the North Little Rock Police Department headquarters, located at 200 W Pershing Blvd in North Little Rock.

For the last several years, as the event grew, it was split between two Sundays with groups of 50 children each, but Norman said this year it was decided to do things a bit differently. Although the event is scaled down somewhat from its peak of 100 children, putting it all together for one shopping trip brought together a crowd of people that filled the store’s front lobby area to capacity with children, parents and family, police officers, and onlookers.

“This is the most kids we’ve ever had shop with us on one Sunday, 80 kids. This year we wanted to do a huge event,” said Norman, as his wide smile grew even larger as he watched excited kids moving throughout the store with police officers in tow.

“This is spectacular.”