The Falls Church City Police Department has begun a campaign to lower the number of thefts from vehicles that some residents say have been plaguing the City for several years.
In the last six months there have been two strings of vehicle burglaries, in November 2015 and a few weeks ago, in which several cars concentrated in one or two neighborhoods of the City were burglarized all in one night.
At the Monday, April 18 meeting of the Falls Church City Council, the City of Falls Church premiered a public service announcement encouraging motorists in the City to lock their vehicles and remove valuables from them.
“99 percent of vehicle burglaries have two things in common,” said Joe Carter, a lieutenant with the Falls Church Police Department in the public service announcement, which is posted to the Falls Church Community Television YouTube channel.
“The vehicles are unlocked and valuables were left in plain sight. Every time you leave your vehicles, take your valuables with you and lock your doors.
“Criminals look for opportunities. Let’s not give them any. Lock it or lose it. Don’t be a victim.”
So far in 2016, there have been 30 reports of thefts from vehicle, according to statistics from the Falls Church Police Department.
That number is quickly eclipsing the number of thefts from vehicle reported in 2015, which was 50, according to the police department. And from 2011-2015, there have been 270 instances of thefts from vehicles.
There is also a low clearance rate for these cases. None of the theft from vehicle cases from 2016 have been cleared, which in this case, according to Carter, means either the stolen property is returned, the criminal is caught or both.
Last year the clearance rate for these sorts of crimes was 2 percent and from 2011-2015 the clearance rate was 6 percent. Carter said that an even lower number of victims in these crimes get their property back.
Carter said that the problem of vehicle burglaries has become frustrating for the police department. He said that they have increased police visibility of neighborhoods in order to help stymie potential burglars and have bought new equipment that will make it easier for police to surveil communities and spot burglars at night.
Carter said that the department puts a minimum of three police officers out in the field to patrol on a daily basis, but admitted that the department would benefit from an increase in staffing.
“The chief is working on that through the budget process…[and] to tell you the truth, five years from now the City is going to be completely different,” Carter said.
“So as the City grows, we need to plan for that…we are growing and with that comes more calls for service, comes more places to patrol. So yeah, in five years this City’s going to be completely different. It’s completely different now from when I started fifteen years ago.”
He said the department has also been suffering from a loss of manpower this year because of sickness and injury, which is something they are attempting to address moving forward. And the Falls Church City Police Department has been working with neighboring jurisdictions in Fairfax and Arlington counties in order to spot trends in burglaries and investigate burglaries.
“They come in strings [usually] and they don’t only hit Falls Church,” Carter said. “They hit Falls Church, they hit Fairfax and they hit Arlington. And it comes in waves.”
Although instances of vehicle burglary are diffuse across Falls Church City, as was revealed from data gathered from the City’s crime reports over the last year by the News-Press, the burglaries are concentrated in areas of the City that are near the East Falls Church and West Falls Church metro stations.
“From the information that I read and research, individuals that go through cars…they usually go to middle to upper class neighborhoods, just based off the fact that people feel a little more secure,” Carter said. “And maybe they won’t lock their doors and leave valuables in their cars because they don’t feel like anything is going to happen.”
Falls Church resident Rohini Winters, a resident of Grove Avenue in Falls Church, regularly does work at home at night. Because of this, she usually does not leave her valuables, in particular her laptop and digital camera that she uses for work, in her car.
But on November 4, 2015, Election Day, she was expecting to go back out after arriving at home and, because of this, she did not lock her car. But she said that she had a headache and went to bed early that night.
“In the morning I had a text message that my credit card possibly had an unauthorized usage, there was maybe some fraudulent activity on my credit card,” Winters said. “So I thought ‘Oh no, I left my purse in the car’ and I went out to the driveway and there was no car.”
Winters’ experience of having her car stolen because it was unlocked occurred on a night when there were three other instances of thefts from vehicles in reported by the Falls Church City police.
Her experience is unique in that, because her keys were in her purse, the person who likely originally intended to burglarize her car could also easily drive away with it. The number of motor vehicle thefts in Falls Church in 2015 was 14 and the average from 2011-2015 was 10.8 per year.
Eight days later the Alexandria Police Department found her car and contacted the Falls Church Police Department to inform Winters that her car had been found. She said that everything was still in her car except for laptop, some credit cards and camera. Vehicle registrations from other cars in her neighborhood were found in the car, too, she said.
Winters said that in the months after her car was stolen she and her children were scared and more alert than before the theft.
She said she personally felt guilt for leaving her car unlocked after it was stolen and that she had done her neighbors a disservice “by showing the bad guys that here is another place you can come to where people are careless.”
“It was pretty devastating because for me, I had just downloaded my iPhone photos onto my laptop and I hadn’t backed it up yet,” Winters said. “And I had a full iPhone, so probably two or three years worth of photos that I lost. That was probably the worst feeling for me.”
Winters said that she was impressed by how Falls Church City detective Sharee Janda handled her case, that the investigation is on-going and has noticed an increased police presence in her neighborhood.
She suggested that the City place the “Lock It or Lose It” message on the orange temporary road sign on the 100 block of E. Broad Street in order to help inform residents and other motorists coming into the City of the City’s campaign and the threat of thefts from vehicles.
Carter said that the “Lock it or Lose It” campaign, just one of the department’s tactics for decreasing the instances of theft from vehicle, is aimed at eliminating the low-risk, high-reward situation potential criminals may face when targeting vehicles in Falls Church.
If cars are unlocked and valuables are visible, Carter said, that creates a situation where a potential criminal has a lower barrier to successfully committing a crime and getting away with it.
When asked by the
if this sort of campaign, telling residents and other motorists in the City to lock their cars or risk losing their valuables was blaming the victim or putting the onus on the potential victim, Carter said he had not gotten any direct complaint to that effect.
“We’re trying to educate the public as much as we can so that they don’t become victims,” Carter said.
“I just got to look myself in the mirror and if I’m doing everything I can to educate the public on how not to become a victim and someone doesn’t like that, I just have to live with that because that’s my job. That’s our job as a department.”