COURTHOUSE — If only in terms of crimes involving cars, 2016 ended for Virginia Beach with an unfortunate consistency with what had come before – a wave of larcenies from automobiles in two neighborhoods near Pungo.
On different December nights, multiple locations were hit in each place, with the bad guys making off with valuables left in cars – phones, wallets, credit cards, cash – though, thankfully, not guns.
On Dec. 17, several larcenies from automobiles happened or were attempted in Ashville Park. Two days later, it was Sherwood Lakes’ turn. Additionally, a car was stolen from each neighborhood.
The corresponding incident reports had matching notes under a heading naming the mode of entry into the vehicles, a factor so common a detective who investigates stolen cars often expects to see it:
KEY LEFT IN VEHICLE; UNLOCKED
“That’s all the time,” said city police Det. D.D. Wilson, part of the auto squad.
During an interview on Wednesday, Jan. 4, he struggled to recall a case he worked during the past year that involved thieves getting into a vehicle through a broken window.
“It’s more common to have case where keys are left in the vehicle than not,” Wilson said.
“I can’t reiterate enough that leaving cars unlocked is a big part of it,” he added.
Police records for the city as a whole and in the First Precinct, which includes most of the coverage area for The Independent News, show a steady rise in recent years in reported cases of motor vehicle theft and completed or attempted larcenies from motor vehicles.
Such crimes this past year resulted in an outcry from residents in the city’s rural reaches, where some people in meetings acknowledged leaving cars unlocked even after a series of crimes.
It also has led to concern in other neighborhoods, where citizens clearly have been doing the same, according to incident reports and police officers speaking during interviews and public meetings.
The Independent News reviewed two types of reported crimes involving cars as a follow up to the newspaper’s special report about the number of stolen guns police encounter in Virginia Beach. Many of those weapons, most commonly handguns, are stolen after being left in cars. [Ed. — That report, called “Everyday Guns,” is available at this link.]
Three years of data available online showed that the number of reports of motor vehicle thefts and larcenies from motor vehicles is steadily on the rise. Numbers available to the public via the online tool ePRO are higher than the statistics used by the department because ePRO searches reports, some of which may be unfounded.
But the increase in reports of thefts from or of vehicles is clear, and department numbers echo this.
Over the past year, police said the numbers are similar to what other communities have seen.
A number of senior leaders and police officers repeatedly have said both crimes are largely preventable when people lock cars and do not keep valuables and keys inside them.
The department has developed a public information campaign, including signs people can hang from their rearview mirrors, to combat the problem and remind citizens to lock up.
These can be “crimes of opportunity,” said Deputy Chief Tony Zucaro, who commands the police Operation Division, during an interview. “Cars that are locked with valuables out of sight – there’s less of an opportunity.”
Capt. David Squires, commanding officer of the First Precinct, routinely discusses this issue during monthly meetings of the precinct’s citizens advisory committee. On Tuesday, Jan. 3, Squires did so again. “Please, please, please lock your car door,” he said.
Squires said the department has seen an increase in such crimes, in part, because thieves expect a likelihood of success. Some may return to places that have been victimized before.
In Ashville Park, he added, there have been 11 incidents in the past year, including those in December. And there were two stolen cars and a firearm stolen from a car.
In an interview later, Squires added that he and an officer from the Crime Prevention Unit were scheduled to meet with people in the neighborhood.
Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Thomas Murphy said thieves sometimes work together. They might even carpool to check for unlocked cars in neighborhoods before making a hasty getaway.
“Three to five guys get out of the cars and check doors,” Murphy said. “They can be gone in five minutes.”
Wilson said the prevalence of people keeping keys in unlocked cars may account for some of the increase. Some thieves may check unlocked cars to steal property inside it, and then they see the keys.
“When they find that key inside a vehicle, that’s kind of a bonus for them,” he said. “They’ll take the whole vehicle.”
Stolen cars sometimes end up in other cities. Thieves may drive them while looking for other targets or during the commission of crimes. They may simply drive them until they are low on gas, he said.
Wilson said citizens can also be vigilant in winter months by keeping an eye on their car while it warms up on cold days. They can also keep an eye on their neighbors’ vehicles.
“We’ve just got to keep the vehicles locked up,” Wilson said.
Squires, during the citizens advisory committee meeting, took questions from citizens.
“What’s a good time to break into a car?” asked Randy Hill of Buckner Farm.
“To get away with it?” Squires asked, drawing some smiles.
“When should I be most aware?” Hill said.
Squires said people should always pay attention when parking their cars. The sorts of crimes at issue can tend to happen from midnight to 5 a.m., he added.
“The simplest, least costly method for you is remove your valuables and lock your car,” Squires said.
“Right on,” Hill replied.
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