Recent Asheville burglaries highlight the issues

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On the night of April 12 and into the early morning hours of April 13, a spate of burglaries hit Joyner Avenue, a small side street off Riverview Drive in West Asheville.

“I came home, found my garage door open,” Joshua Nielsen recalls. “My garage was trashed; everything had been tossed up, thrown around. A lot of my personal effects were destroyed.”

Th3se four burglaries on that street were among the 1,327 reported in Asheville between Jan. 1, 2013, and April 30 of this year.

Just about everyone has a lock on their door, regardless of whether they actually use it, and fending off burglars is definitely big business. One prominent company, ADT, claims 6.4 million customers in the U.S. and Canada and 2012 revenues of $3.2 billion, according to its website. TV commercials tout every kind of electronic countermeasure imaginable: basic security systems, closed-circuit TV, systems that automatically call the police when an intruder enters and even setups that connect to a central database, so a person in a cubicle somewhere can yell at thieves over a loudspeaker in your home.

Nationally, burglary (aka breaking and entering) has been declining for nearly two decades. In June of last year, the U.S. Department of Justice published a special report on household burglaries, using data from 1994 to 2011. Defining it as “the illegal entry or attempted entry of a residence,” the report divides the crimes into four categories — attempted forcible entry, completed forcible entry, completed unlawful entry and completed burglary — all of which declined during the period covered. Total annual household burglaries dropped from a 1994 high of just over 6.3 million to just under 3.4 million in 2011, though the numbers leveled off around 2002 and stayed relatively flat after that.

That’s no comfort to the victims, however. And according to the State Bureau of Investigation, Asheville’s 2012 burglary rate, while lower than Charlotte’s and Greensboro’s, was actually higher than Raleigh’s.

When fully staffed, the Asheville Police Department has six community resource officers, who do community outreach and provide information in connection with a variety of crimes, including breaking and entering. “The goal is quick money, whether it’s a residential property or a vehicle,” says Community Resource Officer Sean Davis. “They’re looking for an easy target.”

“The reasons why run the gamut,” adds CRO Evan Coward. “You’ve got substance-abuse issues; you can blame the economy to a certain point: people down on their luck.”

The triangle of crime

The Police Department has four main categories for these crimes: “burglary first degree” (committed after dark when the victims were home), “burglary business,” “burglary residence” and “burglary other” (those that don’t fit in the other three, such as a shed on someone’s property). A fifth type, “safecracking,” is so rare that it doesn’t affect the overall numbers.

Between January 2013 and April 2014, residences were hit more than three times as often as businesses (881 vs. 260). (See the chart “Asheville Burglaries, 2013-14.”)

“It’s your basic triangle of crime,” says Coward. “Target, desire, opportunity: You have to have all three. If you take just one of those away or make one difficult, then you significantly lower your chances of being victimized.”

The Department of Justice study bears this out: In the 18 years covered, “completed unlawful entry,” in which burglars simply walked through an unlocked door or climbed through an unlocked window, remained the most common type of breaking and entering.

“There are, of course, more residential locations than businesses, which is also a factor,” notes CRO Travis Jones. “But most thieves know that businesses are much more likely to have security systems and alarms. You don’t see, for example, outright burglary from places like Wal-Mart and Target, because you would have to break into the store, and then most of these places have an additional place you would have to break into. If you want a television, why would you spend all the trouble trying to get one from Wal-Mart when you know that they’re ripe for the taking down the road in someone’s unlocked house?”

“Again, there’s the desire aspect,” says Coward. “How bad do you want it?”

Despite the added difficulty of breaking into a business, the approach typically remains largely the same. That wasn’t the case, however, in the four recent burglaries at CityMac electronics stores, where thieves displayed almost regimental discipline in terms of how they broke in, what they stole and how long it took them.

“We can’t comment on that, because it’s an ongoing investigation,” says Coward. “But trust us, that’s a different thing altogether. You don’t see that very often, that level of expertise. Almost all business break-ins are the same type as the residential: smash and grab, take what you can get — and get out of there as fast as you can.”

Due to these crimes’ haphazard nature, the dollar value of the stolen items can vary widely. In the four Joyner Avenue break-ins, for example, the estimated losses ranged from $1,373 to $9,075, even though police believe they were all the work of the same people. Business break-ins, meanwhile, can involve far larger losses: One of the CityMax burglaries topped out at around $70,000.

In the Department of Justice study, the median dollar value of the items stolen (in inflation-adjusted 2011 dollars) “increased 54 percent, from $389 in 1994 to $600 in 2011.” In the latter year, 34.4 percent of the reported crimes involved an electronic device or household appliance. The next most common items stolen, at 31.1 percent, were “personal portable objects” such as clothing, furs, luggage, briefcases, jewelry and watches.

Burglars typically attempt to convert the stolen property to cash as quickly as possible.

“A lot of them utilize pawnshops,” says Davis. “Or Craigslist, different resell places. A lot of it is just selling to another person in the community for pennies on the dollar.”

“It’s not typically for the gain of the item,” notes Jones. “It’s not ‘I’m going to break into this house ’cause I’d really like that TV.’”

Summertime crime

In the period covered by the APD data, July, August and September were by far the most active months for burglars, with 141, 120 and 146 reported incidents, respectively. The lowest months were February and March (45 and 47 reports, respectively).

“This is going to sound cliché, but there’s just more everything in the summer: more wrecks, more fights, more reports,” says Jones. “There are more people out in the summertime. You can blend in a lot better than in the middle of January, when you’re the lone guy walking down the street in the middle of a neighborhood.”

“It’s lighter outside; it’s warmer,” adds Davis. “And thieves know that people are going to be gone on vacation for long stretches of time.”

The APD divides the city into three districts: Adam (West Asheville), Baker (East and North Asheville) and Charlie (South Asheville). And while the percentages varied, all three districts had their highest numbers of burglary reports in those same three months.

“It fluctuates by district,” Davis explains. “When there are residential break-ins, they target several streets in an area: They got away with this one, so they keep going. Last year, Kenilworth was a spike. Then they’ll move along, and [West Asheville] was the spike earlier this year, with Joyner and the communities of Haywood Road. It just bounces around.”

But burglars, notes Jones, don’t say, “‘Oh, they arrested these guys in South Central; let’s go over to North,’ or ‘They’ve increased patrols in North; let’s focus on the East.’ These guys aren’t that coordinated. It’s just different groups deciding to go out at different times.”

Other factors may also be involved. Between 1994 and 2011, for example, the national burglary rate (including both attempted and completed crimes) dropped 56 percent, from 63.4 to 27.6 per 1,000 households. But the biggest drop came in households with incomes of $75,000 or more per year, which went from 48.2 to 12.7 per 1,000 households. Households with annual incomes under $15,000 saw a smaller decline, from 71.1 to 45.1 per 1,000.

Nielsen, one of the Joyner Avenue victims, also points to economic factors. “There’s been a lot of talk about the gentrification of West Asheville,” he notes. “When you have that gentrification next to Pisgah View [public housing complex], you can certainly have that tension between socio-economic classes.”

Jones, however, takes a different tack. “A friend and I were talking about this recently,” he explains. “And this is just my opinion, but a few years ago they passed a law that disallowed forced annexation. So instead of the city growing out, the only growth we can have is up and in. This leads to a denser population, and denser populations inevitably lead to more crime.”

Theories aside, what most officers find is a pattern of opportunity, where sprees occur in a given area due not to any complex logistical scheming but to simple inattention and ease of access.

“If a guy breaks into my car and get two or three bucks’ worth of change,” notes Jones, “then they go to the next house. Well, they find their car unlocked, and they find three bucks and a GPS. Well, this is really easy, so let’s go to the next house, and hey, that car’s unlocked too. There are times we’ll come to work and we’ll have a road where houses 86, 89, 91, 97, 99, we’re taking reports.”

That’s exactly what happened on Joyner Avenue.

To catch a thief

Few burglaries result in arrests. In the Department of Justice study, 8.3 percent did in 1994, 10.6 percent in 2001 and 9.8 percent in 2011. Asheville’s numbers are somewhat higher.

“We have an 11.36 percent arrest rate for felony commercial and residential break-ins in 2013,” says Dave Romick, the APD’s public relations officer. “And a 20 percent arrest rate for first-degree burglaries in the same time frame. This does not necessarily mean that all the rest were unsolved. Some cases weren’t charged for various issues: district attorney declined prosecution, victim refused to cooperate, etc.”

The APD’s approach to burglaries, notes Romick, depends on “various solvability factors: witnesses, known suspects, identifiable property, forensic evidence, possible spree and serial cases. Detectives utilize this and other information to conduct investigations.”

A common problem, says Davis, particularly in residential break-ins, “is a lack of forensics evidence at the scene. It’s a forced entry, or through an unlocked door, and they’ll remove what they can and be out of the area.”

But one of the biggest challenges both in catching burglars and recovering stolen items is a lack of documentation. Thieves fence their stolen goods for pennies on the dollar, and if the victim can’t provide an identifying feature, the stolen items can be almost impossible to track.

“Let me ask you something,” says Jones. “How many serial numbers of the electronic objects in your house do you know or have written down? Also, if I was to ask you what brand and size of TV you have right now, could you tell me?”

“And that’s assuming that these items are going to someplace where they can be tracked, like a pawnshop,” adds Coward.

“I mean, you might be an upstanding guy,” says Jones. “So you find a TV on Craigslist and you purchase it. You’ve never had a criminal history or any problems; the TV is essentially gone at this point. You’re not likely to have law enforcement come into your house and have suspicion to run serial numbers on a TV. Just because it was stolen doesn’t mean the property ends up with a criminal element.

“One of the big things people can do is document all their items,” continues Jones. “There are resources out on the APD crime prevention website (http://avl.mx/0c0). You can print it or save it electronically through a cloud, and you just walk through your house and write down everything you’ve got.”

“Take pictures,” he urges. “And give it some unique detail. Don’t just say ‘pearl necklace.’ There are a lot of pearl necklaces in pawnshops.”

Target hardening

The law enforcement term for protecting yourself from a break-in is”‘target hardening”: making yourself an undesirable target, which removes both the opportunity and the desire legs of the triangle.

“It’s the simple things,” says Jones. “So at Christmastime you get a brand-new TV? Don’t sit a giant TV box on the curb for your garbage man, ’cause someone drives by, sees that, ‘Wow: They have a brand-new TV.’ Got a big picture window? Draw your blinds when you’re out for the day; otherwise I walk by, I see all this through the picture window and no cars in the driveway, I go behind the house so I’m hidden from the road, it takes literally no time to be in and out.”

Locking doors is a no-brainer; less obvious measures include trimming bushes to eliminate hiding places and make all entrances visible to neighbors. And if you’re victimized, call the police. That may seem like common sense, but in the Department of Justice study, whether burglary victims notified law enforcement depended greatly on the value of the stolen items. In 2011, 83 percent of burglaries with losses of $1,000 or more were reported, compared with just 38 percent for losses under $500.

Perhaps the most potent anti-burglary weapon, though, is community involvement.

“We arrested a guy,” remembers Davis, “and he was asked why he chose this house. He had no ties to this area, and he’d drive through a neighborhood and see how much attention he got. He said in that neighborhood, no one looked at him. He would walk around the house and no one noticed. No one cared that he was wandering around, and he couldn’t be seen from the road. And that’s why he chose it.”

“There’s no such thing as a ‘bad neighborhood,’” Coward declares. “What you have is a neighborhood where everyone doesn’t practice these measures. And thieves, if they’re successful once, they come back.”

“We’ll do neighborhood canvasses after reports,” says Davis. “But generally people don’t see anything, or they’re not connected to that community, so they don’t pay that much attention to someone walking around the home. That’s what we preach when we do these community meetings: Get to know your neighbors, and know who’s supposed to be there and who’s not.”

To facilitate that, he continues, “We’ve started neighborhood associations where the community can come together, meet on a regular basis, discuss problems and strategies.”

The East West Asheville Neighborhood Association comprises several community watch groups, including Joyner Avenue. “EWANA holds meetings several times a year,” notes Davis. “And the neighborhood groups are encouraged to meet monthly to discuss concerns and become active. Another is the Montford Neighborhood Association, which is also a large entity with numerous smaller neighborhood groups.”

But there’s a fine line between vigilance and profiling, stresses Davis. “In no way does race, gender, sexual orientation or religion make an individual suspicious.” Instead, he says, people need to look for specific behaviors, such as: looking into windows, homes or vehicles; checking door handles; entering the rear portion of properties; repeatedly knocking on doors or loitering; or asking questions about a neighbor’s time away from home, security measures or vehicles owned.

And sometimes the police beat the odds and quickly make arrests. Between April 24 and May 8, the APD made four arrests in connection with the Joyner Avenue break-ins: Michael Cody Cross, Stanley Patrick Eddings, Maliik Devon Jackson and Carlos Nathan Pope. At press time, all four were in custody awaiting trial.

“I just want to mention how great [the Police Department] was in all this,” says Nielsen. “The detective on our case has done a fantastic job with the investigation and communicating with us. They’ve kept us in the loop and informed every step of the way.” Some of the stolen items have been recovered, though at the moment they’re locked up for use as evidence.

As for target hardening, Nielsen says he’s reached his own conclusions about that: “What did I do after? I bought an alarm system.”

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