The locals call him "Mall Man." Fairfax County Police Officer James V. Papageorge walks the covered streets of a climate-controlled town, tailing shoplifters, tracking lost children, pointing directions to restrooms.

Let him tell you about some of the locals in his "town:"

There is the eccentric woman who has a compulsion to dress nude mannequins. Sales clerks at the exclusive Ann Taylor clothing shop watched in astonishment last year as she dashed into the store, jerked clothes off hangars and draped them over the unblinking, unclad mannequins in the store's windows.

Or take the 70-year-old man with the shoplifting record that dates back to 1926. He was nabbed outside a major department store a few months ago, after slipping a Waterford crystal bowl down the front of his pants into a booster girdle.

And there is the non-English-speaking Salvadoran maintenance crew that turns to the Spanish-speaking Papageorge for anything from settling wage disputes to advice on how to woo women.

Five days a week, Papageorge walks the Tysons Corner shopping center. At night his partner, Joseph Alfreda, takes over the patrol. In a sprawling, 399-square mile county of highway-linked suburbs, the county's major shopping malls are the last vestiges of police foot patrols.

"The mall is like a small town," said Papageorge, 32, who has patrolled the Tyson's Corner mall for the past 14 months. "I have a finger on the pulse. If something happens, I generally get wind of it."

Like a small-town cop, Papageorge spends more time on community service work than he does chasing crime. As a result, he says, his arrest totals are lower than those of his colleagues who patrol the streets in cruisers.

"You have to get used to walking up and down the mall, constantly being the target of questions from the public," said Papageorge. "You've got to be diplomatic; you're dealing with people every hour that you're here."

Late one afternoon last week, he was strolling through the mall answering shoppers' questions about the Easter bunny and the locations of public telephone booths when a department store security officer approached him at a run.

A woman had just bought $3,200 worth of clothes and shoes from the department store and then left without her credit card.

Papageorge trailed the woman to a 1982 charcoal-gray Ford Fairmont in the parking lot, where she sat in the passenger's seat. The rear seat of the car was stuffed with bulging shopping bags.

A few moments later, a young woman who gave her name as Jo Lynn Tyson, was under arrest, handcuffed and and charged with credit-card fraud, credit-card theft and credit-card forgery.

"I take it very personally when people like you come up here to my mall," Papageorge told Tyson as he drove her to the county jail. "You'd better not come back or I'll arrest you for trespassing."

Her Polaroid mug shot will be mounted on the wall of the department store security office, alongside dozens of pictures of people arrested at the mall during the past few months: gray-haired men, young girls, preppy-looking teen-agers, hardened young adults.

Police say that most of the criminal activity at the 90-acre complex involves theft: stolen merchandise, stolen credit cards, or forged checks. According to police and store security personnel, the mall is hit particularly hard by professional thieves who are attracted because of its easy access to the Capital Beltway and to half a dozen other major getaway roads.

Police say that the thieves usually work in teams, sometimes sending one member through the outside entrances to the department stores to scoop up entire racks of clothes and dash out of the doors and into a waiting car, frequently before sales clerks notice that they have been victimized.

But Papageorge and other law-enforcement authorities contend that internal theft is more rampant than outside shoplifting.

Some employes of one department store recently stole merchandise from the mall's underground loading dock and, under the guise of mailing it to customers, sent it to addresses in the District of Columbia where they or their accomplices could retrieve it.

But police say most internal theft involves sales clerks who slip cash out of the cash register drawers.

"Most of them crumble when they're confronted," said Papageorge. "They've built up a pattern; they're always looking over their shoulder and, when they get caught, they just want to get the guilt over with."

Even though Papageorge frequently refers to Tysons as "my mall," he has learned to tread its corridors carefully.

"Some merchants don't like you to walk around their stores," Papageorge said. "They don't want the customers to think their place is a bad risk because the police are always there."

But most of the merchants at Tysons Corner seem more than eager to wave the amiable officer into their stores and shops. Marge invites him in for coffee at her gourmet tea and coffee shop. The teen-age sales girls at the clothing shops cannot wait to tell him about their latest romances. The jewelry shop owner collars him to talk about his new cocker spaniel puppy.

Then there are the maintenance workers who came here from El Salvador. They have found a compadre in Papageorge, a graduate of the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service, who is fluent in their native language.

One of the workers approached Papageorge one afternoon, complaining about his poor romantic luck with American women.

"How can I speak to the ladies?" he asked in Spanish.

Papageorge painstakingly taught him to say in English: "I love you with all my heart."

Unbeknownst to the officer, the Salvadoran began practicing on the mall's female customers.

"Next thing I knew," Papageorge says, "I had women coming up to me complaining that some guy was following them around saying, 'I love you.' "