CITRUS PARK — Beth Joyce feels comfortable strolling through Westfield Citrus Park with her 8-year-old daughter.
So does Terasa Mayercak, pregnant with her fourth child and pushing 14-month-old Zachary in a stroller on a recent weekday morning.
"I can watch my kids in the play area," Mayercak said. "They have a nice family bathroom. It's set up nicely for families."
From kiosk vendors to seniors doing calisthenics, everyone feels safe at the mall in spite of this statistical fact:
Areas around major malls are among the most crime-ridden in Hillsborough County.
Law enforcement officials emphasize that the types of crimes are almost always nonviolent and do not threaten shoppers in the least.
Yet their numbers are startling.
• In Citrus Park, 638 larceny reports accounted for close to half of all 1,421 criminal acts reported in the neighborhood last year.
• Brandon logged 2,791 larcenies out of 6,569 total crimes.
• The University of South Florida area had 1,988 larceny reports among 5,471 crimes.
By comparison, deputies responded to 106 larceny calls in Valrico and 187 in Westchase.
"Any place where you have malls or big-box stores like your Walmarts, they generate a lot of activity for us," Sheriff David Gee said.
Mall complexes accounted for 8 percent of all larcenies in the county last year, he said, so the department has substations and resource deputies inside many of them.
In the USF area, the mall is an entire sheriff's deployment zone.
"Normally that deputy would cover a much bigger area, but with a mall in there he's pretty much going to be busy," Gee said.
The crimes generally fall into two categories: shoplifting, both impulsive and planned, and burglary of automobiles.
"We get people who tell us, 'I didn't lock my car. I left my laptop on the seat, and hey, the window was open, too,' " said sheriff's Maj. Ronald Hartley, who is based in southeast Hillsborough.
How often? "Every day."
In Citrus Park, organized rings of shoplifters operate despite the fact that a sheriff's district headquarters is right on the mall property.
Master Sgt. Brett Saunders, a veteran deputy who has worked off-duty shifts in the mall, thinks the district office might be a deterrent, but not a complete one.
It is virtually impossible for merchants to prevent shoplifting while maintaining an inviting environment, he said.
"They want you to feel welcome," he said. "They don't want you to feel that they are staring at you, and the mall is just packed with people."
Statistics say as much about enforcement as they do about the thefts themselves.
"We find that when the stores are stepping up their loss-prevention programs, that's when the numbers go up," Saunders said.
The National Association for Shoplifting Prevention estimates that thieves steal more than $13 billion worth of goods from retailers each year, which works out to more than $35 million per day.
The acts can range from a teenager slipping a tube of lipstick into her pocket to an organized ring that takes orders for merchandise before heading out to steal it.
Thieves will grab armloads of expensive garments off a display rack and run for the door, Saunders said. They might carry devices that deactivate the theft sensors in the doorway. Some carry pepper spray to use on the security guards.
It doesn't much matter who lives in the surrounding neighborhood, Saunders said. Shoplifting is shoplifting, whether the target is the Citrus Park Dillard's or the Brandon one.
None of it detracts from the popularity of malls among high schoolers, who convene there every Friday night, and mothers seeking air-conditioned play areas for their preschoolers during the day.
Nor should it, Hartley said.
"As far as I'm concerned, malls are one of the safest places you can go," he said.
Staff writer Richard Danielson contributed to this report. Marlene Sokol can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4602.