The city's auto-burglary rate has doubled in January from previous months, according to the Palo Alto Police Department.
As of Jan. 25, the city had 58 reported auto burglaries, police statistics show. By comparison, in November 2015, there were 24 reported auto burglaries; in December 2015 there were 26, police spokesman Lt. Zach Perron said.
But January's figures are not an anomaly. For all of 2015, the auto-burglary rate climbed significantly above previous years dating back to 2008. The city experienced a 35 percent rise in auto burglaries in 2015 over 2014 levels. In 2015, Palo Alto had 488 auto burglaries compared to 313 in 2014, police statistics show.
Most of the crimes occurred in downtown, in parking garages, at shopping centers and at businesses along the El Camino, Perron said. And he estimated that 50 to 75 percent of the recent auto burglaries have been from rental cars.
"Many of these likely occur because they are business visitors from out of the area, who may not be aware of proper safety precautions," Perron said. "Many of the cases involving rental cars occur at restaurants or parking garages, when out-of-town visitors leave their laptop bag in their car when they go to dinner.
"It's easy to identify rental cars, and it's easy to look inside to see if there's a laptop bag in plain sight," Perron said.
But auto burglaries represent only part of the picture. Auto burglary, according to the California Penal Code definition, presupposes a locked vehicle that a thief has broken into. If the vehicle is unlocked, it's called a "theft from auto," which can either be a grand theft or a petty theft, depending on the dollar value of the items stolen, Perron said.
Palo Alto had 206 thefts from auto in 2015. This year, through Jan. 25, the city has had 12 thefts from auto, Perron said.
"Thefts from auto are more likely to occur in neighborhoods overnight, rather than commercial areas during the day and evening, like auto burglaries," Perron said. "Many residents still seem to leave their cars unlocked. Suspects will often go through neighborhoods at night and rummage through any cars they find unlocked, even taking things like loose change, sunglasses, phone chargers, etc."
These types of crimes occur cyclically, and crimes ebb and flow as criminals go in and out of jail or prison, Perron added. When there are several auto burglaries occurring on one night, those are typically committed by one "crew" or individual, he said.
The Jan. 26 arrest of four people near Town & Country Village Shopping Center in Palo Alto, is an example. Two of the suspects were booked for allegedly committing three burglaries on the same night in the same location, Perron said.
The number of auto burglaries and thefts from auto are likely to drop noticeably after a police agency takes a crew or individual off the street, Perron said. However, another crew or suspect can take their place, he added.
"It's not unusual to have multiple crews working an area simultaneously," he said.
But Palo Alto isn't a specific target for these crimes, Perron noted.
"I can share that our detectives are working with their counterparts in at least five other Bay Area cities right now," he said of the Jan. 26 arrests, "and it will likely expand to more."
The problem is even broader than California, Perron added.
"It truly occurs everywhere where there are a lot of targets of opportunity," he said. "I regularly see police departments across the country putting out identical messages to their communities that we do here."
People should remember that auto burglary is a crime of opportunity, and it only takes seconds to commit, Perron said.
"The opportunity is presented when people leave valuables inside their cars, especially in plain view. Our two recommendations are simple: never leave valuables in your car, and always lock up. Those two simple steps will greatly reduce your risk of becoming the victim of auto burglary," he said.
Besides patrolling, Palo Alto police have done extensive outreach with the city's business community, including passing out signs for the hostess stands at many restaurants, which encourage visitors to bring their valuables into the restaurant with them, rather than leaving them in an unattended car.
"We've spoken with all of the rental car companies in town, and have good working relationships with them to help us investigate these cases," Perron said. "Unfortunately, many out-of-town visitors renting cars are not renting cars in Palo Alto. They're coming from one of the Bay Area airports, or they're driving into the Bay Area from points further away, so outreach to local rental-car representatives only helps so much."
The Palo Alto Police Department and the Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce also partnered on a video about auto burglaries, which was released on Dec. 4. It can be viewed here.
Auto-burglary stats from the Palo Alto Police Department for the past eight years: