"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."
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