Home Break-ins—One of the Most Difficult Crimes to Solve—Are on the Rise
They call it "doing a lick." Two young men strode up to a Burien apartment on November 11, 2008, knocked on the front door, and waited. King County Superior Court records say a tenant inside the unit looked out the peephole, saw the two teens, decided they "looked rough," and didn't open the door. Minutes later, the tenant heard the screen being pulled off his window and spotted a Nike-wearing teenager coming foot-first into his kitchen. When the teens realized someone was home, they took off running. Police picked them up later that afternoon.
In January, one of those burglars pleaded guilty to the break-in and was given a sentence of 15 to 36 weeks. Instead of serving time, the teenager was given a suspended sentence on the condition that he complete a drug-rehabilitation program at the Daybreak treatment center in Spokane. By March 17, the teenager had been "terminated" from Daybreak for not following treatment rules. Eight days later, he was caught breaking into another home in Burien. Court records say he told the arresting officer he'd already broken into the home once before. He's already racked up five convictions for burglary, two for theft, and one for auto theft since 2006, prosecutors say.
Burglaries—defined as breaking into a home or business—are on the rise all over King County. According to Seattle Police Department records, burglaries are up 10 percent in the first four months of 2009. In Seattle, the North Precinct and Southwest Precinct are being hit hardest. In West Seattle, there were 231 burglaries in the first four months of 2008 and 344 in the first four months of 2009—nearly a 50 percent increase. Documents provided by the King County Prosecutor's Office show burglary cases were up nearly 18 percent in Bellevue, almost 21 percent in Des Moines, and 25 percent in Tukwila in 2008 over the previous year. (Numbers from the county for 2009 aren't available yet.)
What are police and prosecutors doing about it? The last time local authorities dealt with such a surge in property-related crimes, it was auto theft. King County prosecutors and police responded by tracking and aggressively prosecuting car thieves. Prosecutors worked to "stack" cases—slapping thieves with multiple counts—to push for maximum sentences of about six years. The plan apparently worked: According to the King County Prosecutor's Office, reported auto thefts in the county have plummeted from 17,500 in 2005 to 7,955 in 2008.
Prosecutors are taking a similar tack when it comes to burglaries. In the last month, prosecutors met with burglary detectives from all over the county and assembled a most-wanted list of the 20 most prolific burglars in the region. Prosecutors hope to compile larger cases against repeat burglars to stack sentences and put them away for longer, hoping that tougher sentences will deter criminals.
"A very small number of offenders are responsible for the vast majority of burglaries," says King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg, who estimates that about 150 people are responsible for the majority of the 15,565 reported burglaries in the county in 2008. "If we get longer sentences, when they're in prison they can't break into your house." Satterberg says of those 15,565 burglaries, prosecutors only filed 675 cases. Prosecutors say that's how many cases were solved by detectives. "It's hard to catch [burglars]," he says. "And it hasn't always been the top priority for law enforcement." Naturally, prosecutors can't file charges unless they've got someone to charge.
In addition to the most-wanted list, Satterberg says the county is planning to compile a list of repeat juvenile offenders in the hopes of combating the typically light sentences given to young offenders. "Frankly, we don't get much result in Juvenile Court for burglaries," Satterberg says. "I think sometimes we do a disservice to kids who go through Juvenile Court by not doing much to them or for them while they're there. We don't send the right message." For instance, the teenager sent to drug treatment in Spokane was a repeat offender. Still, he was able to leave the facility, head back to Burien, and return to breaking into homes. While Satterberg seems to think longer jail sentences might make burglars think twice before making off with your plasma TV, after serving six years of prison time, job prospects can be limited. So what's to keep a burglar from going back to what he knows how to do best? Satterberg seemed stumped when asked if locking up burglars, juvenile or otherwise, for longer sentences is really going to fix the problem. "Will we turn them all into taxpayers? I don't know," he said.
It's a complex crime for law enforcement, and if you're one of those people who has been burglarized—especially if it's happened more than once—it can be frustrating and heartbreaking. The first time a burglar broke into Eli Anderson's Central District home in mid-June, Anderson says he spotted a teenage kid walking up the stairs to his house. When the kid realized Anderson was home, he took off running. Anderson didn't think much of it until an hour later he noticed the lights were on in his room and he was missing a small amount of cash and a laptop. It was late and the kid didn't really get anything of value, Anderson says, so he didn't bother to call the cops. Two weeks later, on June 27, someone broke in again. "I know that right now I feel really hurt and bitter about it," Anderson said, about a week afterward. "I'm considering moving out of the neighborhood." This time, they made off with three laptops, $800 in rent money, and thousands of dollars worth of photography equipment. That, Anderson says, stung the most. "Some of the expensive stuff, that hurt," he says. "But they also stole a camera my grandfather gave me before he passed away."
Anderson called the police, and his landlord installed bars on the house's windows. That didn't turn out to be much of a deterrent. On July 3, Anderson says, another burglar just walked through his front door while he was home. His dog scared the intruder off, but it was yet another unsettling example of the increasing brazenness of burglars in Seattle.
Anderson is not the only person in his neighborhood to be hit multiple times by burglars in a short span. One of his friends, Duncan Autrey, has been burgled twice in the last three months. After Autrey's laptop was stolen during a burglary in April, he purchased a new one and started hiding it whenever he would leave the house. One morning before work, he left it under a couch cushion. When he got home, the couch had been upturned and the new laptop was gone. Autrey and Anderson are now discussing forming a community group to discuss and deal with the effects of burglaries, which they refer to as the "Central Area Restorative Justice Project."
Police are often at a loss when it comes to dealing with burglary. According to a department source familiar with burglary investigations, the internet, particularly Craigslist, has made it difficult to track down stolen property. "You used to go to the swap meets and stake those out," the source says. "Craigslist is the great swap meet of the world. They're so hard for us to get information [from]."
According to the source, burglars don't use lock picks or other special tools. "They'll kick in the door, break a window. Burglars used to have burglar tools. Now they're not sophisticated." Often, the source says, neighbors hear the sounds of shattering glass or splintering wood when a break-in occurs, but they don't bother to call police. "Maybe 50, 60, 70 percent of the time, when people witness it, they don't want to call 911," the source says. He doesn't understand it.
According to East Precinct operations lieutenant Sean O'Donnell, if burglary victims are unable to provide serial numbers for stolen items, police have trouble following up on them. And how many people write down the serial numbers for all the things they own? "We're going to focus on the cases that have information, so that we can better follow up on them," he says. Lieutenant O'Donnell says that detectives frequently have to inactivate cases they just don't have enough information to pursue. If there are no fingerprints or serial numbers available for a burglary case, detectives have almost nothing to go on.