Palo Alto police reports spike in auto break-ins

Auto-burglary rate the highest in eight years, police say

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:

2008: 293

2009: 388

2010: 241

2011: 229

2012: 240

2013: 409

2014: 313

2015: 488

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10 people like this
Posted by Joe
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 28, 2016 at 4:16 pm

Every few months we see the same data from the police about auto theft. Yet, little seems to be done by the police to use simple video technology to at least record the thefts in the garages. With any luck, and a little signage, it’s even possible that the cameras would become a deterrent.

An App, provided by the rental car companies, could easily be developed that would offer rental car customers a reminder when they leave their cars that thefts in {Palo Alto, or Mountain View, or Chicago} are significant, and that the car operators should move any valuables to the trunk, or carry with.

As to cars in the neighborhoods being rummaged—seems that a gadget could be developed (paid for by the police) that would allow the police to “bait” cars so that if the doors are opened while the device is active, then a radio signal to the police would alert them that the bait car was being pilfered.

It’s amazing that we’re sitting here in the middle of the Silicon Valley and little is being done to use locally available technology to thwart this sort of crime.

5 people like this
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Jan 28, 2016 at 10:40 pm

"crime of opportunity" = "blame the victim"

4 people like this
Posted by artist
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Jan 29, 2016 at 12:16 pm

yet another reason not to build the parking garage planned for the 200 block of Sherman Ave. More parking garages, more auto thefts. If you don't build it...more people will bike or train.

4 people like this
Posted by Barron Parker
a resident of Barron Park
on Jan 29, 2016 at 3:16 pm

I want to second Joe's suggestion about using simple technology.

Again, if we had closed circuit TV on all feeder streets to residential and commercial areas, and in all garages and parking lots, this would be a very inexpensive and effective way to reduce auto burglaries (and other burglaries as well). Smart criminals are aware of surveillance methods and stay away from them.

So -- what are we waiting for?

2 people like this
Posted by ced1106
a resident of Palo Verde
on Jan 29, 2016 at 6:22 pm

I know a simple technology that's already installed on cars. It's called a lock. Please familiarize yourself with one. Trunks are widely available on cars as well, and are useful for preventing outsiders from seeing the contents of your car.

And, yes, a Club doesn't hurt. A Club doesn't keep a determined thief from breaking into your car. It, however, deters them from choosing to break into your car.

2 people like this
Posted by Harry
a resident of South of Midtown
on Jan 29, 2016 at 9:25 pm

Locks and trunks Ced? That'll never work..... The new signs and cameras are the best bet. But with such an innovative, groundbreaking idea, who knows when this new technology will be able to help. Will "Please don't burglarize our car or else we might not vote for Prop 47 again" signs be able to fit in the budget?

2 people like this
Posted by Kazu
a resident of Downtown North
on Jan 29, 2016 at 9:33 pm

"yet another reason not to build the parking garage planned for the 200 block of Sherman Ave. More parking garages, more auto thefts. If you don't build it...more people will bike or train."

Don't build any new housing or office space, and don't upgrade the streets. People will then stay away from Palo Alto and it will be like it was 40 years ago. PA will be paradise!

It's not like that line of NIMBY reasoning worked.

1 person likes this
Posted by New Resident
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jan 29, 2017 at 6:09 pm

I'm new to Palo Alto and I just had my car broken into. It was parked in the CalTrain lot at Hamilton and Alma. My car, as well as three others, all had their back windows smashed (so the various suggestions offered about locks and clubs are worthless in this situation). I was surprised that the Palo Alto Police refused to respond to this situation. They referred me to the San Mateo sheriff who put me on hold then hung up on me. Based on this poor response by the police, I would guess that the actual rate of auto break-in's is higher than what is reported in the statistics. In case you are wondering, I moved here from a major East Coast city where I had my car broken into many times; I'm not naive about auto safety. However I've never parked in a highly visible lot in a safe neighborhood and had this happen. In addition, I'm used to the police responding very quickly.

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

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