Corridor burglaries see decline

Drop reflects random nature of incidents, influence of smaller groups

Published: January 31 2014 | 3:30 am - Updated: 29 March 2014 | 2:55 am in
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Eight break-ins were reported to Cedar Rapids police between the early morning hours on Monday and Tuesday morning this week.

It goes to show that burglars, even in sub-zero weather, rarely take a day or night off. Despite that, Cedar Rapids has seen a steady decline in burglaries over the past five years, with 2013 setting at least a five-year low for reported residential and business break-ins, at 920 reported. There were 1,217 reported burglaries in 2009.

“All crime is a concern,” said Police Chief Wayne Jerman, comparing it to violent offenses such as robberies and shots fired that were targeted by the police department in the past year. “It’s good to see a decline in burglaries.”

The decline has not been steady. After dropping to 951 burglary reports in 2010, the next three years saw 1,018, 930 and 920. Other communities in the Corridor reported similar trends.

Police said the fluctuation of burglary reports reflects the random nature of burglaries and the fact that only a few people or an individual can have a big effect, especially in smaller communities.

“One person or one small group of people can make a difference when you’re looking at small numbers like ours,”  Hiawatha Police Chief Dennis Marks said. “You’ve got one group of people breaking into garages, it’s going to show a big increase. It kind of ebbs and flows with us.”

Hiawatha took 63 burglary reports in 2009, but only 33 in 2013. In 2012, there were 57 reported burglaries, up from 37 the year before.

Elsewhere in the Corridor:

  • Reported burglaries in Marion decreased from 143 in 2009 to 123 in 2012 and 2013.
  • Iowa City burglary reports have increased from 305 in 2009 to 358 last year. The high water mark for that period came in 2012, with 377 reported break-ins.
  • Coralville saw an increase in reported burglaries over five years, with 33 reported in 2010 and 58 reported last year.
  • Reports of home and business break-ins more than doubled in North Liberty over the last five years. There were 18 reported in 2009 and 43 reported last year.

North Liberty Police Chief Diane Venenga speculated that the community’s status as one of the fastest growing in Iowa could be one cause for the increase. From 2000 to 2010, the Johnson County community’s population exploded from 5,367 to 13,374, according to census data.

“I think it is a factor just because it’s bringing in a diverse population into the community,” Venenga said.

As with Hiawatha, Coralville easily can be affected by a handful of determined burglars, Coralville Police Lt. Shane Kron said.

“What we get is what we believe to be a burglar or burglary group, and they just hit us hard,” Kron said. “If you would look at these spread out over a year, you would see these group up. We get multiple burglaries over a one-month period.”

The apparent randomness of burglaries doesn't make them easy to solve. Kron recalled one prolonged case in Coralville in 2012 in which a group appeared to be targeting one particular ethnic group in the city. They also discovered that if Moline, Ill., more than an hour away from Coralville, got hit with a burglary, Coralville typically had a burglary the day before or the day after.

“We’d have three burglaries in a day and not have that same pattern for three, four, five months, then we’d get hit five times in a day,” he said. “It’s just so frustrating. You’re trying to establish a pattern, and there was just no pattern.”

Suspects eventually were arrested by Davenport police and determined to be a group of three men from Texas who were driving to Chicago every few months and committing jewelry burglaries along the way.

“At least 15 of the 2012 burglaries were those guys,” Kron said. “They hit the same house twice. That’s what makes burglaries so difficult.”

Kron warned not to read too much into crime trends just by looking at burglary numbers, noting that many burglary calls are not home invasions but more innocuous crimes such as stealing a cellphone from a locker at the gym.

"We spend the overwhelming majority of our time and effort on residential burglaries, which end up being a relatively small number of all burglaries," he said.

Burglaries are a crime of opportunity, and in a college town such as Iowa City, those opportunities present themselves several times a year with school breaks. Iowa City police Sgt. Vicki Lalla said the department sees an increase in burglary reports after spring break and winter break when University of Iowa students return to their apartments.

“We always see a little uptick in the number of burglaries during spring break and winter break,” Lalla said. “They leave their doors unlocked. People can walk into an apartment building and start trying doors. They’re out of the public view.

"When they find open apartment doors, they go in and steal stuff.”

Many burglars won’t stop until they’ve been caught and, even then, it’s not a sure thing, Lalla said. She recalled one burglar, David Frain, who went to prison in 1994 for committing a series of burglaries in Iowa City.

When Iowa City was hit with a rash of burglaries again years later, Lalla said she noted Frain was out of prison. He ended up being charged in connection with some of those crimes, Lalla said.

But while police can sometimes identify repeat offenders, trying to guess which houses they will hit is less reliable.

“How do they pick which house they’re going to burglarize? I don’t know," Lalla said.

Most departments respond to break-ins by increasing patrols in areas hit by burglars. But the Cedar Rapids Police Department also takes an analytical approach to crime trends.

Jerman said the command staff attends a weekly Crime Strategy Meeting during which crime trends in the city identified by the department’s analyst are discussed.

“Any time we identify a trend or possible trend, we will modify and adapt our deployment,” Jerman said.

But nothing provides better burglary protection than vigilant neighbors, police said.

“Certainly the best weapon is neighborhood awareness,” Kron said. “When a neighborhood decides to get together and work together, they really do prevent a lot more than just burglaries … . When people call in suspicious things, we catch things.”

Exploring the data

*Note: the population number used is an average of the U.S. Census' estimate for 2010 - 12.

Cedar Rapids Public Safety Communications Coordinator Greg Buelow said there are plenty of things people can do to make sure their home isn’t an easy target for would-be burglars. Police suggest keeping doors and windows locked and ensuring the garage door is down when you leave each day.

Buelow said burglars tend to be experts at finding hidden keys, so police recommend they not be left outside.

“Leave it with a trusted neighbor,” he suggested.

For those going out of town for an extended period, police recommend making the house look occupied by taking care of snow removal or lawn care, and having someone pick up your mail and newspaper or putting a stop on deliveries. Buelow said people also should be careful about what they post on social media when they are away.

“It’s usually not a good idea to advertise you’re away from home for several days,” he said.

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