Two weeks ago Columbia Heights resident Kelly James said he was dismayed to wake up in the morning and find his garage door open, his truck stolen from his driveway, and his wife’s car ransacked.
“The police officer who came out told me that on average, there’s a car stolen every week in Columbia Heights,” he said. “That’s not acceptable. It’s not okay.”
But car theft and another crime, which the police call “Robbery of Person,” are becoming wide-spread problems in the metro area. In a four-month period in Northeast Minneapolis, from July through October, 2005, police reported 99 auto thefts and 67 robberies. Last year in the same period, car theft numbers were higher but robberies were lower: 109 car thefts and 55 robberies.
Columbia Heights Police Chief Tom Johnson said the car theft numbers have risen in the city over last year: there have been 103 car thefts in the city from January to October. Over the same period in 2004, there were 88.
“I think it’s mostly joy riding, and the majority [of cars] are recovered,” he said. “Hot wiring a car isn’t real involved; it’s a matter of finding the right wires. The older the car, the easier it is to do.” He said alarm systems and other devices—such as one that fastens to the steering wheel—might help deter criminals, although he doesn’t personally endorse any specific products.
“Any deterrent is better than none. Not leaving anything visible in your car helps, too. Thieves are usually looking for something of value to pawn. If they look in a window and see a big box of CDs, a laptop computer, checkbook, wallet or, this time of year, even Christmas presents, that’s a higher enticement. It’s like a two-fer, they get a car and the presents too.”
People who steal cars include juveniles, people who are desperate (“They need to be somewhere”), and people working for “chop shops,” he said. “That’s where you get your [Toyota] Camry and Nissan thefts; the parts are worth a lot of money.”
But for the police, car theft “isn’t something you can do a whole lot with,” he said. “We put it in the computer and wait for it to be recovered. Officers routinely run license plates on cars. Thefts and burglaries are a higher priority for us.”
James said his truck was recovered a day later, still in possession of the thief, who was arrested. The police told him, James added, that it’s a bad idea to park a car on the driveway overnight with the garage door opener in it.
“Some thieves break into cars just to get the garage door opener. If the door from the house to the garage is unlocked, they can get right into the house. They’ll also steal tools from the garage. It’s easy to sell them, and very few homeowners have the serial numbers on them.”
Minneapolis Police 2nd Precinct Inspector Valerie Wurster said, “Auto theft is one of those crimes I don’t think any of us in any jurisdiction are watching as closely as we could. Our auto theft numbers are the lowest in the city, and our party calls are the highest in the city.” (The Second Precinct covers all of Northeast and parts of Southeast Minneapolis, including the University of Minnesota.)
“But the citizens in Northeast are upset about it because they’ve managed to live in this precinct with relatively no crime,” she added. “Now they see that changing.”
She said local law enforcement doesn’t have the tools to deal with the problem. “There’s no auto theft task force. There’s nobody looking for chop shops.”
Johnson said robberies such as purse snatchings are up in Columbia Heights, with 43 so far this year over 34 last year. “Those are more likely [to occur] late at night, [when there are] fewer people out on the streets, somebody maybe walking home alone from the bus.”
Wurster said robbery is up 38 percent in the precinct this month; last week, Nov. 8-14, there were 10 robberies. “That’s higher than usual. We usually have between five and seven a week.”
“We have to look at crime in a broader perspective,” Wurster said. “There are social reasons behind many of these things. Crime is a harbinger of issues in the future.”
She said the 10 robberies included four businesses in the same strip mall.
“We think we may have some leads on that one,” she said.
There were also six street robberies of persons. “We’re not getting a lot of suspect information on those,” she added.
Wurster said the Second Precinct is “seeing some slow increases in staff here,” which is good news. And although numbers of officers are still low, she said arrests are up.
A Nov. 17 crime alert bulletin from crime prevention specialist Carol Oosterhuis reports that residents in the 2nd precinct have reported several garage burglaries in recent weeks.