Just the facts: Santa wears a badge

This year, 42 families were enrolled in the Shop With A Cop program and close to 200 family members received gifts.

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Not your typical Wal-Mart shopping scene. With his Glock handgun holstered Walla Walla Police Department officer Chris Buttice carts 5-year-old Santa-hatted Hailee Connelly through aisles of prospective presents during the annual Shop With A Cop program during pre-dawn hours Saturday morning. Buttice and Connelly were headed to the back of the store where Buttice's shopping partner Walla Walla Police Department officer Kevin Huxoll had already begun shopping recon work.

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Celebrating the 10th anniversary of the annual Shop With A Cop program with the urban legend cop companion — a donut — Hailee Connelly, 5, fuels up for her shopping adventure.

COLLEGE PLACE -- The 10th anniversary of the local Shop With A Cop program took place early Saturday morning at Wal-Mart, but not early enough for 10-year-old Jennifer Higgins.

"She woke up at 2, 3 and 4. And we said, 'Why are you sitting up (in bed), it is not 6 o'clock yet,'" Jennifer's grandmother, Virginia Whitney, said.

Saturday was Higgins' second year to shop with a cop, and she was still a little nervous as she waited to see who would be her officer this year for the Christmas charity where officers buy gifts for children.

Close to 30 officers from Walla Walla, College Place, Milton-Freewater, Walla Walla County, Veterans Affairs and the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife took part in the event.

During the event, pairs of officers teamed up to push a cart for a child and shop for Christmas. But in most cases it was the children -- with their inerrant ability to locate a toy section -- who led the way to a better Christmas for them and their families, who were all nominated anonymously.

"I don't even know who called them up; I don't know how they got my number," Danielle, a parent of two, said as she, Afton, 10, and JJ, 2, waited for the program to start.

And as her children ate a free breakfast that rivaled any served by a sugar plum fairy -- pancakes, syrup and donuts -- Danielle explained how a recent medical diagnosis for her son has left them with plenty of trips to OHSU in Portland and very little money for presents.

"He's deaf. So our medical bills are ridiculous. So it (Shop with a Cop) helps," she said.

Since it was the 10-year anniversary for the local Shop With A Cop, event organizers set of goal of raising $10,000, which they missed by just $600, said Walla Walla County Sheriff's Det. Cristal Harris.

This year, 42 families were enrolled in the program and close to 200 family members received gifts, which were all picked out by the enrolled children.

Last year, Natalia, 10, was a bystander as her older sister had the chance to shop with a cop for the entire family.

This year it was Natalia's turn.

"It's fun because they (family) try to tell you everything they want, and then you turn around and get them something else," Natalie said, while being escorted by a good-cop good-cop duo, who not only shopped with her but also investigated what she wanted for Christmas.

"So we will say, 'What did you ask for from Santa this year?'" Harris said, pointing out one method used by officers. Once the present is known, one of the officers slips away to grab the gift and have it wrapped.

In the end, the child leaves with a basket full of gifts for the family and one gift from Santa for himself or herself.

Families in the Shop With A Cop program also receive Christmas trees, food coupons and other assistance. Any money left over is used to help other families in need whom officers encounter throughout the year, Harris said.

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