Traverse City, Mich. — Deputy Dennis Halverson steps out of his car with the telltale flashing light on top and the big star emblems of the Grand Traverse County Sheriff's Department painted on its sides. He hurries into an elementary school in Traverse City. Teachers and students stare. There is a stir, and some apprehension and dismay. A police officer in school usually means someone's in trouble - big trouble.
On this particular day, the trouble is shoplifting. Deputy Halverson knows the problem well. He's seen the terror in the eyes of boys and girls caught stealing from neighborhood stores. He's seen their tragedies compounded when families, frightened and disillusioned, couldn't cope. He's seen adults in prison who began the same way - by lifting a candy bar, then a toy, then a watch , then more.
Shoplifting saddens Deputy Halverson, but on this day he is happy because he isn't at a school to find a culprit or make an arrest. Quite the opposite. He's there on an educational mission to head off shoplifting before it happens.
It's part of his newly created job as school liaison officer with the sheriff's department. His goal: to establish a new relationship with young people so they know police officers as friends and guardians who teach them the law and how to stay on the right side of it.
Although he smiles and waves and calls out a friendly ''Hi,'' to the students , he establishes his authority by wearing his brown and tan officer's uniform and addressing them in a firm, matter-of-fact voice. He is careful not to scold, exaggerate, or intimidate his audience. ''I want them to share with me,'' he says. ''I want to develop their trust.''
On the advice of older students, whom he consulted in advance, Deputy Halverson aims his shoplifting prevention message at fourth, fifth, and sixth-graders. ''The older kids told me to start young,'' he says, ''while children's minds are still open and their ideas are still being formed.''
He begins his 45-minute presentation with a short film, ''Only Losers Play,'' produced for the National Coalition to Prevent Shoplifting (NCPS) and directed specifically at youngsters.
The film dramatizes typical situations involving the chief causes of youthful shoplifting:
* Peer pressure: One boy dares another to steal candy with taunts of ''you're chicken.'' Saying, ''My friend made me do it'' is no help to the frightened boy who is nabbed by a security guard.
* The idea that stores are impersonal and nobody really owns the merchandise: A girl steals a necklace. Discovered by her mother and forced to return it to the store, the girl faces the owner and sees his anguish over the loss of merchandise he has purchased.
* Inability to handle money: A boy steals a game he could easily have bought had he saved his allowance. He realizes the pain he has caused his father, who thought he was teaching him how to budget his spending money.
''Most young people who have gotten into trouble with the law weren't aware of the consequences or they wouldn't have done it,'' Deputy Halverson explains to his audience at the conclusion of the film.
Then he presses home the fact that ''shoplifting is a crime.'' He sees surprise on some young faces. They are not alone. A recent NCPS survey of youngsters showed 86 percent thought shoplifting was not a crime.
Next, he spells out the penalties. Most kids are picked up when their parents are not in the store, and in many communities they are taken to the store office and security guards call their parents. In Grand Traverse County, the system is purposely tougher. Deputy Halverson explains:
''The store calls the police and they take you in a patrol car to the sheriff's department. There, I dial your home telephone number and I hand the phone to you. Then YOU must tell your mother or father that you are at the police station and what you did to get picked up by the police. You have to tell them you won't be released until they come to get you.''
When this information sinks in, he says, ''You can hear a pin drop. Mom and Dad are not vague, they are very real. Suddenly the youngsters are imagining what a terrible experience this would be. It's an awesome moment. It's the most powerful deterrent in the world.''
He drives th point home, explaining that the child is still in police custody until he or she appears before a judge with the parents and the child tells again what crime has been committed.
''If it's the first time, you are put on probation,'' he tells them. ''That means you are assigned a baby sitter, an adult probation officer who watches your every move for an average of six months. Your grades, school attendance, everything you do is reviewed before you can be taken off probation.''
Then, another shocker:
''If you become a habitual offender and go before the judge four or five times, you can be removed from your home and sent to a youth home.''
And still another:
''Once you hit 17, if you still haven't learned not to shoplift, in the eyes of the law you are an adult. Instead of being brought to the sheriff's office, you go right to jail. You are arrested. That arrest means you now have an adult criminal record. Think how many career doors are suddenly closed to you because you have to say 'yes' on the application form where it asks if you've ever been arrested.''
Then Deputy Halverson introduces a representative of the county prosecutor's office who explains how the prosecutor represents the people in the courtroom and tries to prove in front of the judge the deed that led to the arrest.
Then an older student wearing a dog costume and a trench coat is introduced as McGruff, the Crime Dog, a national cartoon emblem used to ''take a bite out of crime.'' This gives the proceedings a light touch while still driving home the lesson that shoplifting is costly to children and to the nation.
It is the largest monetary crime in the country, costing merchants $16 billion annually and paid for by consumers in higher prices. Five to 7 cents of every dollar spent on consumer goods goes to replace shoplifting losses or pay for preventive measures merchants must take.
In Grand Traverse County, merchants have rallied to support the shoplifting prevention program sponsored jointly by the Traverse City Women's Club, Cherryland Mall Merchants, and the sheriff's department.
The Women's Club and the Cherryland Mall merchants set up the school and club appearances for Deputy Halverson. To date, he has addressed 1,700 students in 12 elementary schools and hundreds of others at youth groups and Scout meetings.
The merchants in the mall also sponsored a poster contest in the schools with cash prizes and displayed the winning posters where shoppers could see them: ''Shoplifting is not uplifting,'' says one. ''Don't shoplift or this will happen to you,'' says another, with police and jail cells much in evidence.
In the future, Deputy Halverson hopes to take his message to high school students and adults with the film ''It's a Steal,'' which is a sequel to ''Only Losers Play.'' He is also developing an antidrug educational program for junior high students.
''This program is evidence that the community cares about its children,'' Deputy Halverson says. ''The cooperation we're getting is outstanding. It's exciting. There's a lot of hope in it.''
Dennis Halverson, who has a degree in criminal justice from Michigan State University, with emphasis on the juvenile offender, was hired by newly elected Sheriff Jack Canfield last April as the county's first school liaison officer.
''Sheriff Canfield felt we were ignoring a large part of the population, our youth, who never had anybody to work with them and educate them regarding the law and police officers,'' Deputy Halverson says. ''Generally, the only time we came into contact with them was when they were a victim or a suspect. He wants to change that and have youngsters see the police as friends, as well as people whose job it is to enforce the law.''
Deputy Halverson describes his job as ''pro-active'' law enforcement, or prevention, as opposed to most police work, which is ''reactive'' - police reacting once a crime has been committed.
''My pet peeve is that police are often made the 'heavy,' '' he says. ''If I go into a restaurant in my uniform, I invariably hear someone whisper to a child , 'If you don't behave, I'm going to tell that policeman.' I want kids to know me as a friend they can call on.''
He feels this change is coming.
''The best part for me is knowing that if I can keep one youngster from starting out on the road of crime, from getting a record, I will have done what I want to do with my life.''
The National Coalition to Prevent Shoplifting is at the Atlanta Merchandise Mart, 240 Peachtree Street, Suite 5A5, Atlanta, Ga. 30303.