Paul Davis On Crime & Security
A small businessman left an important meeting with a potential customer and he drove from the customer’s office to a local shopping mall, where he parked his car in the mall’s lot and went inside the mall for lunch.
A half hour later he returned to his parked car and discovered that the passenger window had been smashed in and his GPS device was missing. He also discovered that his car truck was open and his laptop computer and briefcase, both of which held critical information for his business, had been stolen as well.
For many small business people, a car is as essential a tool as a computer, so this scenario, which happens all too often, can truly damage one’s business. Other victimized business people discover that their car had been broken in to when they leave their home in the morning or leave their place of business in the evening.
To learn more about car break-ins, a crime called "theft from auto," I visited Captain Laurence D. Nodiff, the Commanding Officer of the South Detective Division in Philadelphia. Captain Nodiff is a 36-year veteran of the Philadelphia Police Department. Below is my interview with him:
Davis: The last time I went out on a ride-along with a police officer, the officer said that theft from auto was one of the major crimes in the district and city-wide. Is that still the case?
Captain Nodiff: Yes. We ask the community to assist us in target hardening. When you pull up in front of your house, do all of the basics. Lock your car and roll up all of the windows. But if you want to leave your hockey sticks in the back seat of the car, your iPod in the cup holder, your GPS device suction cupped to the windshield, your E-Z Pass suction cupped to the windshield, and you leave a couple of dollar bills in the cup holder, and loose change in the cup holder, then the criminal element will say, hey, look at that. There is an open car and I can have a field day.
Davis: I’d add CDs in plain view to your list.
Captain Nodiff: So, the first thing is, don’t leave any items visible in your car and don’t leave your car unlocked. Now, I’ve talked to some people who say if you’re going to break in to my car, I would rather they just open the door than break my window. So I’m not going to lock my car. They say I always leave 32 cents in the cup holder, so if they want the 32 cents I’m going to leave my door open.
Davis: I don’t see the logic of that.
Captain Nodiff: What we recommend is target hardening. Roll up the windows, lock the door, and don’t leave visible the GPS device suctioned to the window. Keep that GPS device in your house and bring it out with you, or if you really need to keep in your car, lock it in the trunk. It may be labor-intensive, but you should take one of those wet-wipes and wipe the suction cup marks off of the window.
Davis: That will prevent a crook from breaking into your glove compartment to look for the GPS, right?
Captain Nodiff: That’s right. Lots of criminals walk down the street at night with a little flashlight and they put it on your windshield and they look for the suction cup marks. During the daytime it is real easy to spot the suction cup marks. I don’t have a GPS device, but I do have an E-Z Pass. I keep it in the house and I bring it out when I drive on a trip. When I get there, I take it off and I lock it in the trunk. I take a wet-nap and I wipe the suction cup marks off of the windshield. Does it take me 30 seconds? Yeah, it does. Do I think it’s worth not having my car broken into? Yes.
Davis: That’s better than having a cinder block thrown through your window.
Captain Nodiff: When I was the captain of the 23rd District, which covered part of Temple University, the students there would leave their iPod, cell phone and laptop visible in the parked car. In a good society you should be able to do that, but as long as we have criminals you have to target harden and protect yourself. If you have a car alarm system, use it.
Davis: What do thieves generally use to break into cars? What is the tool of choice?
Captain Nodiff: Some people use a spark plug. Some people just grab a rock, throw it through the window and keep walking. They’ll come back later if an alarm doesn’t go off or no one’s light goes on. So now the vehicle is open and they have access. They can now open the door or just reach in and grab what they saw.
Davis: I’ve heard of the use of spark plugs before. Why is that a good break-in tool?
Captain Nodiff: You just tap the glass with the spark plug in a hard manner and supposedly it breaks the glass.
Davis: And I take it that it’s not loud.
Captain Nodiff: Not at all.
Davis: Is this a crime that occurs generally at night?
Captain Nodiff: It depends. If you have a transportation hub in your area where people park their cars between six and eight in the morning and they are not going to come back until later in the afternoon, then obviously during those hours you have a lot of cars parked there, a lot of targets, and you’ll have an increase in car break-ins, as opposed to residential areas, where most people are asleep at night so the break-ins occur at night.
Davis: What can the business community do to help prevent car break-ins?
Captain Nodiff: Lots of businesses have installed high quality video cameras. That certainly helps.
Davis: How does the police response to a car break-in work? What should a victim do?
Captain Nodiff: Here’s how it works. You come out and realize your car has been broken into. Dial 911. We don’t want you to touch the car. Don’t start rooting through to see what’s missing. A responding police officer will come out. Inform that officer of the last time you secured your car. Tell the officer, for example, that you see that your CD’s, which were in the glove box, are now thrown on the front seats and floor of the car. The police officer has a pretty good understanding that whoever did that probably touched the CDs. What we generally find is lots of thieves don’t take all of the CDs. They finger through, without gloves, your CDs and only take the ones that appeal to their music style. So as they thumb through them, they are touching and leaving what we hope are latent fingerprints. We have scene teams in all of the districts, trained uniformed police officers, who will respond. They will bring a fingerprint kit with them and they will dust the car for fingerprints. We’ve had cases of when the fingerprints are submitted to our Records Identification Unit and put into AFIS (Automatic Fingerprint Identification System) that they come up with hits of local thieves. That match will be brought into the Detective Division and a detective will be assigned. The detective will contact the owner and ask do you know “John Jones?” And the owner will say no, I don’t know John Jones, why do you ask? Well, because John Jones’ fingerprints were found inside your car on your CDs. Now unless John Jones was the cashier who sold you the CDs we have a pretty good idea of who broke into your car. The detectives will then go out and track down John Jones and bring him in for questioning.
Davis: Is the District Attorney willing and able to prosecute these cases?
Captain Nodiff: Yes. The DA’s office will approve charges.
Davis: Who are the thieves breaking into cars - the homeless, drug addicts, professional thieves - all of the above?
Captain Nodiff: Professional thieves are not interested in this crime, but the homeless and addicts are generally the ones we see.
Davis: Any last tips?
Captain Nodiff: One important thing is when you hear that crashing sound or hear an alarm go off, look outside and if you see your neighbor’s car window is broken, don’t hesitate, call 911. Don’t put on your pants or go to your neighbor’s house first, as you’re cutting down on response time. Call 911 and let the police roll. Also, record the serial numbers of GPS devices and other equipment and keep the numbers in a safe place in your home.