Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - October 12, 2012

On Deadline: Camera-armed residents fighting back against spike in Palo Alto home/auto burglaries

by Jay Thorwaldson

Stunned into action by a wave of brazen daylight home and auto burglaries in recent months, Palo Alto residents and neighborhood groups are rallying to defend their property and community.

A surge in interest in home-surveillance systems — candid cameras, in short — is one of the main components in their arsenal of action items.

Several neighborhood organizations have already made good use of the Internet, with real-time alerts when someone gets robbed or burgled, or something seems out of place. Some networks have been around for years, creating tight bonds among those signed on.

There is frustration among neighborhood leaders as to how to get more people linked, whether for general neighborhood news or to encourage emergency preparedness.

Perhaps the burglars who have found easy pickings in Palo Alto might leave behind a positive side-effect — more cohesive neighborhoods — as some of them, at least, head off to jail or prison. An old adage is that having a common enemy unites folks.

The online alerts are now being augmented by face-to-face meetings, such as three in the past two weeks — one of them Wednesday night in the Crescent Park area of north Palo Alto.

Jim Lewis is one of the leaders of the drive for more secure neighborhoods. He's active both in the Crescent Park Neighborhood Association and in the Edgewood Neighborhood Association.

Lewis hosted a meeting in his home a week ago last Saturday and the Edgewood group held a meeting in a home the next day, Sunday. About 36 persons attended, several of whom expressed interest in surveillance systems. Attendees included residents from the area where Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and football great Steve Young live. Young and his wife attended one meeting. Zuckerberg was a fresh victim, with numerous laptops stolen from a Facebook building in Palo Alto — for which two young men have been arrested. Not a "residential" burglary, but that's a lot of laptops.

"Research is being done in preparation for our next monthly meeting scheduled for Sunday, Oct. 28," Lewis reported. He hopes "for a more definitive answer" as to the best type of system to install.

"In the meantime, several neighbors have camera systems already," he notes. One neighbor has done extensive research, after a bad experience with his initial purchase.

Barron Park and Midtown neighborhoods also have responded with a surging interest in protection, circulating tips and holding sessions on how to improve security of one's home or car.

Palo Alto police are direct participants in the prevention efforts, on top of a major response to the crime wave in which police presence has doubled in neighborhoods during the prime "burglary hours" of 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.

There was a sharp burglary spike in the first three months of 2012. Things cooled off somewhat in May, June and July but rose sharply again in August and early September before tapering off in late September.

Early in the year, police launched a "Lock It or Lose It!" awareness effort, noting that a majority of burglaries involve unlocked doors or windows, or cars.

Between Jan. 1 and Sept. 10, there were 151 reported burglaries, up about 50 percent from three prior years. There was a surge of 130 burglaries reported in 2008.

Police Chief Dennis Burns, who attended a neighborhood meeting Wednesday night, told the Weekly that the department has not done a comparison of systems — yet. But he agreed several features that would help nab burglars would be clarity of image, low-light sensitivity, multiple cameras and ease of downloading information for quick access by police, either via the Internet or a tiny thumb-drive device.

Such systems "can be very beneficial" in terms of helping make arrests, he said. And some systems are "dirt cheap" compared to systems not too many years back that would be a major investment, he noted.

So far, no one is seriously proposing a city-operated camera system in neighborhoods, although some residents have mentioned that possibility.

That would raise significant concerns about invasion of privacy of residents and public by a government entity. But a proliferation of privately owned surveillance systems not linked to any official network doesn't seem as threatening to many. No "Big Brother" on watch here, just us Little Brother residents with cameras aimed at our own homes.

There's also a touch of irony: The upsurge in neighborhood togetherness parallels a positive neighborhood-cohesiveness effort by Mayor Yiaway Yeh, as part of his goal as mayor to enhance "community" in the community. The city is looking at "neighborhood grants" for projects or programs to help achieve closer-ness.

The two efforts may complement each other. The end result might well be more people who get to know each other, either in response to Yeh's outreach efforts or the crisis of crime, and who then find themselves engaged in a broader range of activities than block parties or crime-prevention meetings.

There can be downsides. Some residents with dogs for home protection (one of the best methods) have found that they also have unhappy neighbors — if their dogs bark too much at too little.

In one online comment, a Community Center resident posted: "I have two watch dogs for protection since I live alone.

"Unfortunately, my neighbor is a hostile, grumpy old man who hates dogs and threatens me when my dogs bark. My dogs only bark if they hear someone near my fence area.

"Maybe my grumpy, mean ol' neighbor should be thankful my dogs protect the neighborhood!

"Anyone have suggestions on how to deal with a hostile neighbor who leaves threatening notes? Cheers, and everyone please lock up, and stay safe!"

Cookies? With an apology for the barking?

Meanwhile, in terms of increased surveillance, does anyone recall the children's book of many years ago, with the theme: "There is a WatchBird watching you."

Welcome back, WatchBird.

Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be emailed at jthorwaldson@paweekly.com with a copy to jaythor@well.com. He also writes biweekly blogs at www.PaloAltoOnline.com (below Town Square).

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