Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - February 27, 2008

Editorial: Residents are best anti-burglary alarm

Big spike in residential burglaries and thefts from automobiles reported in January, creating fears of 2006 crime wave

When home and auto burglaries spiked in 2006, Palo Alto residents were rightfully alarmed and some were angry, demanding that police do something about the crime wave that penetrated virtually all areas of town.

Police did. An intense, multi-city effort was launched to detect and capture those responsible for numerous home and auto burglaries, with extra police patrols cruising neighborhoods both in cars and on bicycles. Dozens of suspects were arrested.

Firefighters were sent out on their rigs to watch for suspicious activity and for visibility. Utilities crews and meter readers were trained to report out-of-place activities.

But then, as now, police and city workers cannot do it alone. A good portion of the effectiveness in 2006 and in earlier crime spikes was due to increased awareness on the part of citizens watching each others' homes and vehicles more closely and calling in if something might not look right.

In the current wave, police report nearly double the number of home burglaries in January, 25 compared to 14 in November. February is even worse, with 22 reported in the first 24 days, with six in one day, Feb. 21 — nearly one per day average for the two-month period. In addition, 15 vehicles have been stolen in the past 30 days.

"We're looking at some of the same problems of two summers ago," police Sgt. Sandra Brown observed to the Weekly for a story in today's paper. Only it's not summer.

Brown said the bad weather in January may have created opportunities for some burglars, as officers were busy responding to accidents, downed trees and other storm-related incidents. The sound of rain and wind also covers forced entries.

But a large part of the problem is simple carelessness on the part of residents, many of whom fail to lock vehicles while some even leave their back doors unlocked when they leave home.

Besides the inconvenience, residents value the feeling of not having to be overly careful in their homes. They want to feel secure enough that they can leave their homes without securing every door and window. But this is not Mayberry, USA — and no area of the community has been spared, although there is some clustering closer to Bayshore Freeway for a quick exit from town.

When people are hit in their homes or parked vehicles, the sense of violation and vulnerability can be a shock, and the first reaction is to blame authorities and demand that those responsible be apprehended and jailed.

That's easier said than done, especially when citizens haven't really done their part.

In 2006, then-Mayor Judy Kleinberg announced a "Palo Alto Safe Neighborhoods" effort that focused city efforts on crime prevention.

Since then, Kleinberg and neighborhood leaders such as Annette Glanckopf Ashton of Midtown and others have expanded their efforts to organize residents into emergency-response teams.

While the primary focus is on preparing for a major disaster or emergency, natural or man-made, the same network of trained volunteers and alert residents could be highly effective in this type of neighborhood emergency.

Ashton and other leaders are presently trying to recruit and train "block coordinators" for each of the city's approximately 2,500 blocks — individuals willing to take some responsibility for meeting their neighbors and helping them become more aware of what's going on around them.

Progress has been slow, but perhaps a silver lining of the current crime wave would be to hurry this process along.

Longtime Barron Park leader Bob Moss recalls earlier efforts in that part of town, including monthly update meetings with police in the early 1990s and creation of a "Neighborhood Watch" program. But residents come and go, and such programs need constant tending to remain effective.

New organizing tools now exist, such as e-mail and the Internet. In addition to the Weekly's longstanding "Community Pulse" crime reports each week, a new real-time crime-reporting system just came online: www.CrimeReports.com .

But, as Brown says in today's coverage, the key is people:

"We need to go back to the basics. We need prevention. We need people to be watching for suspicious activity."

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