Peninsula police respond to smash-and-grab crimes

A spate of auto burglaries targets rental vehicles

The police call them "window-smash burglaries." In Palo Alto this summer, there have been about 70 such crimes, in which thieves busted car windows and took items within. Nearly 50 occurred in June.

There were three smash-and-grab burglaries on Tuesday alone.

"It's been a huge problem lately," Detective Sgt. Brian Philip of the Palo Alto Police Department said. "Over the summer months, we've seen a substantial increase in all areas of Palo Alto."

These spates have changed how the police department has responded, with an increase in high-visibility surveillance, probation and parole searches and inter-agency efforts.

The crimes are "fast and furious," Philip said. Criminals choose a vehicle, especially one with something of value sitting on the seat. They smash the window with any of a variety of devices, "they reach and grab it and they're gone," he said.

Sometimes, Philip said, the burglars break the window, pop the trunk and grab valuables from there.

Burglars target rental vehicles because people who are traveling carry their valuables with them more often. Many times, they attend business dinners at Palo Alto restaurants, making their laptops and smartphones -- which Philip said are the most stolen items -- vulnerable to theft.

"Obviously, the criminals have figured out that we have a lot of business people in town. ... I think that's probably attractive for our criminals because they know they are going to find some loot (here)," he said. "We know that thieves know that, and that's what we've been targeting."

Stanford Shopping Center has been a focal point for thieves; six or seven a night occurred back in April and May. Along with the shopping center, other "hot spots" included downtown Palo Alto parking garages on High Street and Bryant Street and several restaurants on El Camino.

In July, thefts occurred four times at both Ming's Restaurant on Embarcadero Road and the Enid W. Pearson-Arastradero Preserve.

Police saw a similar trend earlier in the year until they arrested Shane Springer, of San Francisco, who they believe was responsible for a significant amount of the burglaries, Philip said.

To crack down on the summer's burglaries, police implemented multiple strategies and operations, some of which are ongoing and cannot be discussed, Philip said.

"Let's just say some of the things we've already done have virtually stopped all of the auto-burglary activity," Philip said.

It may be too quick to say, "virtually stopped" -- July did have 26 auto-burglaries, according to the Palo Alto police log.

Police have contacted several suspects, conducted probation and parole searches and emphasized working with what Philip calls the most effective method: high-visibility surveillance.

"The intent was to let people know: 'Hey, look, the police are out here,'" he said. "You may see them in a police car or you may not see them because they're in unmarked cars. You may not see us because we're on foot blending with people in the mall. We're out here, and we're watching."

One strategy, called a suppression operation, has police in uniform or in plain clothes, looking for specific suspects. Much of the information about these suspects comes from shared intelligence between cities -- a strong asset, he said, to stopping burglaries.

The arrest of a San Francisco man named Raydell Fletcher on June 25 was an inter-agency effort. After surveillance video at Stanford's Nordstrom allegedly captured Fletcher committing an auto burglary, the San Francisco Police Department located a vehicle that matched Palo Alto police's description of Fletcher's car, and the Palo Alto police booked him.

Palo Alto is not alone in experiencing a burglary spike. The crimes have increased across the Peninsula, and agencies have worked together to stem the issue, Philip said. Other heavily hit areas include malls in Daly City, San Mateo and San Francisco.

Daly City Sgt. Michael Barton said their spike occurred in May and June around the Serramonte Shopping Center. It's a crime a lot of cities are dealing with right now, he said.

"What we found is that (the criminals) were not people we normally deal with, within our city," he said. "So they were from outside our jurisdiction."

Barton said it would be fair to assume these criminals are mobile.

"They are not going to stay in Daly City," he said, especially if they see an increased police presence. "From a common sense approach, I would say that they will go somewhere else like Palo Alto."

It's a "crime of opportunity," in which criminals target areas where people leave their cars for a long time, he said.

San Francisco Police Department Public Information Officer Tracy Turner said San Francisco had a 31 percent increase in auto burglaries in 2013. Criminals burglarized vehicles 1,139 times in May and 960 times in June in San Francisco.

"They do come from out of the area to hit places," she said.

She reasoned that the increased value of the items left in cars has led to the growth of this crime.

Also, Palo Alto's low crime rate leads to relaxed residents who might leave their valuables in their cars more often, she said.

Philip put Palo Alto's auto burglaries in a larger context. Many of the criminals don't just burglarize cars.

"In the grand scheme of things and in light of the auto-burglary rise, it brought to our attention that many of these crews are prolific in other things," he said. "They are coming down here (from San Francisco) and doing a montage of crimes."

The various crimes include identify theft -- which increased for a time at Palo Alto's Nordstrom -- and shoplifting.

"So we know that; mall security knows that now," Philip said. "So we were focusing on suspicious activity in general because we know that they are not partial to one crime or another."

One aspect that police still need to work on is discovering where the stolen items end up, he said.

"That seems to be the problem as far as I'm concerned," he said. "It would be really nice if we could get law-enforcement resources together and try and figure it out."

Despite the continuing work, Philip said he predicts a steady decline in window-smash burglaries in Palo Alto.

"Obviously, I don't like seeing a big trend," he said. "And I want people to continue to visit our towns and frequent our restaurants, so I'm going to do whatever I can to make this a safe place for them to be so they don't have to worry about being a victim."

A map of the crimes can be found here.


Like this comment
Posted by neighbor
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 9, 2013 at 4:30 pm

If there's anyone with influence out there, please try to get Stanford Shopping Center to increase their vehicle patrols in the parking garage and lots - I think that visible presence would help a lot. Stanford is clearly one of the most prosperous shopping centers in the entire SF Bay Area, and we want to feel secure when shopping there and visitors should be able to shop in peace and leave their purchases in the trunk without a big risk. I think visible presence of security will reduce theft and robbery there.

Like this comment
Posted by neighbor
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 9, 2013 at 4:33 pm

The main commonsense tip: lock things: your car doors, don't leave valuables in sight, and close and lock your windows, sliders, doors at home. Some people live in olden days and are too relaxed about their property and valuables.

Like this comment
Posted by shame on ssc
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 9, 2013 at 7:53 pm

I agree with neighbor that stanford shopping center needs to increase security presence in their parking lots. The article says for a couple months there were 6 or 7 there a night. That is unacceptable.

Like this comment
Posted by Haha
a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 9, 2013 at 8:32 pm

[Post removed.]

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Posted by Mr.Recycle
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 9, 2013 at 10:09 pm

Why doesn't the Stanford Shopping Center have surveillance cameras covering every inch of the parking lots?

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Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 9, 2013 at 11:21 pm

Much better map.

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Posted by Smash and grab victim
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 9, 2013 at 11:49 pm

I was one of the victims at a smash and grab at the parking lot of the Ming's restaurant on a weeknight dinner after work. I was appalled at what happened and at the lack of cameras at the parking lot. The restaurant owners did nothing about it and based on what the article said, it looks like other robberies have already taken place there. It is a perfect spot next to 101, making for an easy escape. If you're ever at Ming's, I recommend you watch out and not leave anything in your car.

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Posted by Surveillance-Cameras-Work
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 10, 2013 at 8:28 am

> I was appalled at what happened and at the lack of cameras
> at the parking lot. The restaurant owners did nothing about it

Maybe the best thing to do is avoid Ming's after dark. The owners don't seem to be people who care about their customers' safety.

Like this comment
Posted by neighbor
a resident of another community
on Aug 10, 2013 at 11:02 am

More security is great, but each of us has some personal responsibility too.

Don't leave ANYTHING of any value in you car -- ever. Esp. electronics!! Lock your car. Don't ever let go of your purse at Starbucks, stores, etc. These are basics, but they would prevent a lot of smash and grab thefts.

Stunning that people actually left their laptops in the car in the parking lot then went shopping.

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Posted by neighbor
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 10, 2013 at 2:25 pm

We've been through this before. As I recall, it hasn't previously focused on people leaving laptops on seats and then going shopping.
What I remember has to do with the large number of visitors in this upscale area.
People fly in here with their (prospective applicant) kid to visit/tour Stanford, then park their rental car at the shopping center to get food, shop, whatever as it is a close nearby attraction. It is understandable such persons would have luggage, purchases in their trunk. There have been letters to the editor of local publications from irate parents who have suffered theft in this fashion while visiting Stanford. I don't think it was from leaving electronics out in the open; I think criminals stake out the parking lots/garages and witnessed these visitors putting bags in their trunk and took advantage of them.

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Posted by Bob
a resident of Community Center
on Aug 10, 2013 at 3:46 pm

Renta car companies used to put an identifying sticker on a bumper or on a window clearly identifying the vehicle as a 'rental'. Might as well put on a sign saying "Take my stuff".
Perhaps there needs to be a requirement that every restaurant - at least the upscale ones- have least two security cameras and post warning signs to guests. Hotel parking lots should definitely have these cameras.

2 people like this
Posted by Nayeli
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 11, 2013 at 4:58 pm

It is a shame that society has stooped to the point where good people have to spend time, effort and even money to protect themselves from an ever-increasing number of pathetic thieves, graffiti "artists" and other thugs.

Like this comment
Posted by Sparty
a resident of another community
on Aug 12, 2013 at 11:49 am

[Post removed.]

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Posted by Allen Edwards
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 12, 2013 at 12:08 pm

Anyone watch "Max Headroom"? Is that where we are headed?

In that series, it was only safe to walk the streets if you had a live TV camera with you recording your every move. When the TV feed went out, really bad things happened.

The court ruling in New York today, outlawing a program that has saved thousands of lives, is not helpful.

Like this comment
Posted by Leslie
a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 12, 2013 at 12:09 pm

Also, beware along Stanford Ave. near the Dish. I came down from a Dish walk recently about 7 a.m. and saw that an SUV had its front passenger window smashed. Glass was all over the ground and the seat. Right in plain sight on the seat was a keyring full of keys and lots of personal papers. The vandal(s) didn't take those, but who knows what else was sitting in plain sight on the front seat that they did take? Let's not make it any easier on the thieving scallywags than it already is.

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Posted by stretch
a resident of another community
on Aug 12, 2013 at 12:47 pm

To Smash and Grab Victim: it wasn't Ming's fault that vauables were stolen from your car. Have we come to the point that it's up to store owners and shopping centers to replace common sense with cameras and patrols? Don't leave things that you don't want to lose in your car! It's been like this in the Hawaiian Islands for years - when you rent a car, they tell you not to leave valuables inside. It's time to take responsibility and not foist it upon someone else.

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Posted by Hmmm
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Aug 12, 2013 at 9:12 pm

I was at Byxby Park when a woman's purse was stolen from her car. Of course, leaving it on her front seat in plain sight wasn't too bright. It's lousy when people go straight from work to exercise, leaving their items vulnerable, but it helps greatly if people actually hide them. Those of us who're honest don't skulk around sussing out opportunities for thievery, but it only takes one slick jerk to do some damage.

Like this comment
Posted by Suspicious Guy
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 13, 2013 at 9:15 am

There's usually somebody at Byxby Park, parked on the edge of the lot, just sitting in their car, which is parked with the front facing out so they could pull out of there in a hurry if they need to.

Do I call the cops on people like this or are they just chilling? I don't know.

Like this comment
Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 13, 2013 at 1:18 pm

Sheesh - GoPro has an enitrely new application. Who knew?

Like this comment
Posted by Palo Alto Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 13, 2013 at 6:00 pm

I think we need the police to actively patrol more. They need to randomly close all highway exists except one of them which should have a vehicle search. We see home/car robberies during the day and then car and catalytic converter thefts at night by people who come from out of town. How hard is to ask a non-resident who doesn't work at a full-time job in Palo Alto that the police would like to search your car? They can aways say no and criminals will get the message.

Like this comment
Posted by Hmmm
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Aug 13, 2013 at 6:34 pm

Suspicious Guy - thanks for the info re the person who parks facing out at Byxbee. I know a lot of locals who love going there, so I'll tell them to be on the lookout.

Like this comment
Posted by Joe
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Aug 15, 2013 at 3:50 pm

It's interesting that despite demands for cut backs, decrease in pay, benefits and pension, Palo Altans want more and more from the police department. Wake up! With cuts in policing everywhere, it has become incumbent on us to do some 'policing' ourselves. Look around you, be prepared to report anything suspicious, lock doors and windows and don't leave valuables in cars--even out of sight.

Like some people here, I do think that businesses need to use cameras that take top quality video. I'm not fond of Ming's anyway, but their cavalier attitude toward break-ins is definitely alienating.

Like this comment
Posted by Janie
a resident of Menlo Park
on Aug 18, 2013 at 6:39 am

The city parks and museums and coastal tourist attractions are being targeted as well. I found someone's luggage in a trail in golden gate park, she was parked at Academy of Sciences. Spoke with park staff and they said there are dozens of vehicles broken into EVERY DAY.

Always new it could happen, but now I know it's LIKELY.

City life everywhere.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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