Apr. 17—Take to social media, and you'll see someone posting about an unlocked vehicle being stolen from their driveway or cameras catching groups of teens trying to break in.
This surge of car thefts and break-ins has become well-known to local law enforcement, which repeatedly reminds residents to not leave their cars unlocked and to remove any valuables.
"Unfortunately, our residents are lax in spite of all the warnings and public service announcements. They have a small-town mentality, and that has not worked well for them in this area," Windsor Locks Police Lt. Paul Cherniack said.
The novel coronavirus pandemic has only compounded this rising problem, with figures from local police departments comparing 2019 to 2020 showing the surge in car crimes is statewide.
Suffield resident Courtney Stanton experienced a car break-in September when thieves gained entrance into her car.
Her husband's truck was parked outside their house, and the thieves swiped the garage key from inside the unlocked truck, then used it to enter their garage and rummage through her car, which was parked inside.
She was alerted to the break-in after the thieves had left when a neighbor working the second shift found several items from her purse on the street.
Stanton never found the thieves and described the entire experience as violating.
"It was scary ... I couldn't believe that people were like, so close to me in my home and like this middle of the night," she said. "And I didn't even know; we woke up to a neighbor knocking at our door in the middle of the night."
Similarly, Coventry resident Rebecca Kitfield's car has been broken into several times. The most recent time, it was stolen after she left her spare key in a backpack in her truck. She woke up one morning only to find her Lexus gone.
Her car was eventually recovered in Hartford, but upon getting it back, she said her car was trashed. Her work bag, car seats, diapers, and other supplies were gone, and drug paraphernalia lay scattered about.
Cherniack said these types of incidents are more a crime of opportunity, and thieves will more often than not rummage through unlocked vehicles.
These car thieves, Cherniack said, understand the weaknesses and what police can and can't do in a small town such as Windsor Locks, which has less than 13,000 residents, limited resources and fewer police officers and cruisers on the road at any given time.
Car thieves used to be more heavily concentrated in larger cities such as Hartford, Bridgeport, and New Haven. However, they have started hitting smaller, more suburban communities that historically saw little to no car thefts or break-ins.
Windsor Locks has over 200 roadways, and it's easy to avoid detection.
"They hit these cars so quickly that by the time we even get there, they're gone, or it doesn't even get discovered until people wake up in the morning," Cherniack said.
Manchester Police Lt. Ryan Shea said that from March 2020 through February 2021, the town saw motor vehicle burglaries jump to 551 calls for service from 298 calls of service from the previous yearlong period, an increase of 84%.
To combat this, Manchester has taken up campaigns such as a 9 p.m. routine — encouraging citizens to lock their vehicles and not leave any belongings inside cars.
He added that Manchester Police have dedicated resources to cracking down on car thefts and break-ins, stating that it's always on patrolling officers' minds, especially during overnight shifts.
Changing technology, he said, is also part of the problem.
Over the past decade, a significant driver of car thefts and break-ins is the popularization of remote keyless entry fobs or small devices that lock or unlock cars, homes, or businesses without physically inserting a real key into the door.
This technology makes it easier to steal cars. Instead of hotwiring a vehicle, thieves can start it if the key fob is left inside.
"We now have key fobs for vehicles where the key doesn't necessarily have to be in the ignition. If it's just in in the vehicle or in the area of the vehicle, the car can be started," Shea said. "We had a lot of vehicles taken in those circumstances where the vehicle was left running and unattended. And, you know, the crime of opportunity was taken by an individual to take that vehicle."
Vernon Police Lt. William Meier said car thefts and break-ins aren't a new problem; the town has been experiencing it for years.
However, like other municipalities across the state and country, 2020 saw a rise in break-ins. Most happen when people leave their vehicles unlocked in their driveway, allowing thieves to steal valuables left inside, such as purses, laptops, cash, and even in some cases, firearms. Vernon saw car break-ins jump by nearly 50% over the past year.
Catalytic converters targeted, too
Along with the rise in car break-ins and thefts, there's also been an increase in thefts of catalytic converters from cars, located on the vehicle's exhaust to filter pollutants, over the past few months, though Meier says this is a separate type of crime.
Catalytic converters are stolen due to in the value of rhodium, one of the metals used in the converters that has increased dramatically over the last few years, and these burglars usually hit commercial establishments.
Police say the individuals responsible for the thefts target the catalytic converters specifically and may be part of an organized group. These burglars aren't the same people who roam neighbors checking for unlocked cars.
In both types of crimes, though, Meier said surveillance cameras can help, and if you see suspicious activity in the neighborhood, call the police. Most of the time, when the police catch someone, it's because someone called and gave officers a tip, he said.
However, break-ins have become so prevalent that some people have stopped calling the police altogether.
Matthew Clough, of Vernon, has had thieves break into his car — or try to — multiple times since the start of the year. It has even been hit while in the parking lot at work in Hartford.
He said it's gotten to the point where he doesn't bother to always report these incidents, especially if the young thieves just pull on the door handles and run away.
What surprised him most was the age of the thieves. He was working last Christmas Eve and several juveniles were going through the cars in the office parking lot.
Clough ran down to his car, ready to confront the thief, but was taken aback when he realized it was just a child, no older than 14.
"So that was kind of shocking to see like, a kid doing that, like I turned around. I'll be fully honest," he said.
The drastic rise in car thefts and break-ins corresponds with the pandemic precautions that forced school closures and enacts remote learning, beginning in March, with reports across the country linking disengaged kids with spikes in property crime.
However, some police and government leaders feel the problem, in part, lies in the changes to juvenile justice system.
"They know the police won't chase them for minor property crimes. They know that the courts are very lenient, especially for juveniles. And they're aware of these things, and they exploit that and that's what criminals do," Windsor Locks' Cherniack said.
In 2010, Connecticut followed many other states' pattern by raising the age of juvenile jurisdiction from 15 to 16. In 2012, this was raised again, to age 17.
This change meant juveniles were no longer automatically prosecuted as adults in the criminal justice system, and following the change, the state's crimes steadily decreased in line with nationwide trends. But a subsequent rise in motor vehicle thefts prompted concern among critics.
Municipal leaders have called on state legislators to rectify the issue by enacting harsher penalties, such as requiring a juvenile charged for a second time with car theft to be fitted for a GPS monitoring device.
However, new data shows state juvenile justice reforms over the past decade have only minimally contributed to the rise car thefts across Connecticut.
Car thefts in Connecticut did increase in 2020, but it is relatively on par with 2018 and closely reflects a nationwide trend during the pandemic, said Ken Barone, manager of the Institute for Municipal and Regional Policy, a research organization based at Central Connecticut State University in New Britain.
However, Barone indicated it is as simple as an increase of unlocked cars in driveways due to remote work and schooling, travel restrictions, and imposed lockdown measures, thus providing greater opportunity for car thefts and break-ins.
It's also the closing of schools, loss of afterschool activities, loss of juvenile outreach and intervention programs, police department budgetary issues, courts unable to operate at full capacity, and limited resources that are contributing factors, he added.
"You just had really this whole sort of system shutdown, and then you had increase in people home and cars in driveways or out on the streets," Barone said.
The nature of the crime has changed over the past three decades, from when cars were being stolen and stripped of parts for money. Now, a majority of vehicles stolen are recovered are primarily unharmed.
Barone says this means the car thefts and break-ins aren't part of some sophisticated crime syndicates. Instead, juveniles take these cars for joyrides and abandon them when they run out of gas or lose interest after a few hours.
"There is zero evidence that an increase in motor vehicle thefts or car break-ins is related to any reforms the state has made to its juvenile justice laws," Barone said. "We shouldn't be reverting back to solutions of yesterday, particularly when the crime is better today than it was, you know, 10 and 20 years ago, and when the evidence tells us that there's no correlation between changes to the Connecticut juvenile justice laws and an increase in this offense."
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