Christmas came early for about 280 underprivileged St. Paul children on Saturday when they paired with local police to buy holiday gifts for their family.

The 14th annual “Shop with Cops” event is designed to foster relationships between police officers and the city’s youngest residents — all while making sure they have presents to put under their tree.

“It’s basically just bridging the gap between our community. This is who we serve,” said Metro Transit officer Jewel Morrison, pointing to the children bustling around the Target Superstore on University Avenue.

“This is an opportunity to meet the community in a non-crisis situation.”

Morrison was one of about 70 officers from the St. Paul Police Department, Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office and Metro Transit, along with several dozen other volunteers, who came in on their day off to participate.

Kids from low-income families who are nominated within their neighborhoods are given a gift card — ranging in value from $50 to $150 based on family size — to buy a gift for themselves and their family members. Donations from Target and other community organizations pay for the cards.

Morrison helped 10-year-old Kahlaila Shambley pick out a Beyoncé CD for her mother, a Nerf gun for her brother and a necklace for her best friend. And as a present to herself, Kahlaila grabbed a pair of hot pink snowpants.

Salah Abdi, 9, inquired about the various tools on Morrison’s duty belt while they walked through the jewelry section. The officer explained how pepper spray worked and eventually let Salah play with her flashlight, gently reminding him: “Don’t shine it in anyone’s eyes!”

While Salah picked out an imitation diamond bracelet for his mother, red carts crammed the toy section looking for the perfect gift. Barbie dolls, Legos and video games flew off the shelves, as officers and volunteers — some donning superhero capes over their uniforms — kept track of the wish lists.

Metro Transit officer Yesenia Soto carted around 6-year-old Angel Garcia, who directed her through the sea of shoppers.

After multitudes of national protests over the maltreatment of minorities by police, the event was an important way to both give back and help alleviate tensions, Soto said.

“We’re just normal people wearing a uniform and patches,” she said. “We’re moms and dads, too. Not just cops.”

Navid Amini, a reserve officer with the St. Paul Police, said he was absolutely struck by the selflessness of the girl he was matched with.

Chris McNair, 11, had a list of 10 family members she wanted to buy for. Each name had an age written next to it and Chris embarked on a mission to buy each last one of them a gift. For a 6-month-old cousin, she chose a teething ring — something Amini said he never would have thought of.

In fact, the girl carefully planned every gift without ever picking out one for herself. This was one of the only ways her family would receive presents this year, she said.

“It’s a fantastic way to give back,” said Amini, adding that giving should be a yearlong obligation. “And it’s incredible to see their generosity.”

After about an hour of shopping, the children headed back to the Western District headquarters across the street for pizza and gift wrapping. The police station was decorated like Santa’s workshop, where volunteer elves delicately wrapped and labeled each item.

“Shop with Cops” was created in 2000 with the initial intent of repairing long-strained relationships between the police department and the Frogtown and Summit-University communities. To address the problem, authorities thought it was best to target children ages 5 and up.

“This is the right thing to do,” said Assistant Police Chief William Martinez, adding that the department has now established the tradition with recruits.

One recruit, Robert Luna Jr., said he began participating in the program long before joining the force because it teaches kids that cops aren’t bad people.

The youngster he shopped with didn’t at first understand that he’d get to take the gifts home, Luna said. When he realized he could, the boy bear-hugged Luna’s leg and said “Thank you!”

“To me, that makes all of today worth it,” Luna said.