More than 100 families gathered outside a local Target store Saturday morning for the annual Santa Cops event, which partners members of the Metropolitan Police Department with disadvantaged children to buy Christmas presents.
Children played with the K-9 officers, petted two police horses and peered into the SWAT team's van at the store at 278 S. Decatur Blvd. before they told officers the toys and clothes they wanted.
Voices went silent and the eyes of more than 208 officers and children peered skyward to watch Santa Claus arrive by helicopter. Children pointed and waved, then Santa Claus emerged with a bag full of goodies.
Every year, the Police Department teams up with Target Corp. to help Las Vegas families in need. The event began in 1985, and was originally known as Shop With A Cop before changing to Santa Cops in recent years.
Participating children are nominated by police officers who encounter struggling families while on duty. This year, organizers raised more than $15,000 - with $7,000 coming from Target.
Andy Legrow, who has served with the Police Department for the past 28 years, said he tries to attend the Santa Cops event every year. His son Mitch, who has been with the department for the past two years, joined him Saturday as the two dashed down aisles to fill their carts.
"This gives these kids a great opportunity, as well as a human side to police officers," Andy Legrow said. "We want these kids to see we are more than just a uniform. Police officers are people just like everyone else. We don't want them to ever be afraid to approach or talk to us."
This year, Andy Legrow was paired with 4-year-old Lewis Ontiveros, who sat quietly in the shopping cart, sporting a tall mohawk that spoke louder than he did all morning. When Legrow asked Lewis what he wanted to get first, his response was short and sweet.
"Helicopter," he whispered.
As Legrow pulled his cart up to the display of helicopter toys, Ontiveros' shy demeanor melted away. Smiling broadly, he stood in his cart and examined each box. Finally, he pointed to the bottom shelf.
"This one?" Legrow asked, as he held the largest helicopter box out to Ontiveros.
As he sat in the cart with his new toy, Ontiveros beamed, the box so big it sat partially on his lap.
"What next?" Legrow asked. But Ontiveros wasn't listening as he rested his head against the box, smiling as he looked inside.
Officer Amelia Stephens said this was her second year participating in the Santa Cops event, and that seeing the kids happy is why she returned this year.
"That's the best part," Stephens said, referring to the hug and thank you the child gave her at the register. "It's about seeing them happy. When we were shopping, I thought she was going to have a heart attack she was so excited."
As the two unloaded their shopping cart of a Barbie Dreamhouse, baby dolls, clothing and bracelets, the register ticked well over the $130 allotted gift card.
"This event is near and dear to everyone's heart," said Jennifer Knight, community affairs specialist for the Police Department. "It's not unusual at all for the officers to spend over and go out of pocket."
Santa Cops, however, is also an effort to create a positive relationship between children and police officers.
"When our officers arrive at these kids' homes, its not always because of something good," Knight said. "We like to give back to the community in another way other than safety, and give a positive association to kids who might not always have a positive association to cops."
Dannielle Ontiveros, whose three children participated, said Santa Cops is a vital program that needs to continue.
"It's so important to lower-income people," she said tearfully. "There are so many people losing their jobs, and these things make (the kids') dreams come true."
Contact reporter Tara Verderosa at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0264.