Battling burglars

Stacy Elkins got the call shortly after 9 p.m. Oct. 20.

The alarm at her and her husband’s new store, Jojo Urban Clothing at 3345 Nicollet Ave., was tripped again. Seven months pregnant, she rolled out of bed, threw on some shoes and a hooded sweatshirt and drove to the store from her North Minneapolis home. Blue and red lights from parked squad cars flashed against police uniforms at the scene.

Another burglary. Elkins couldn’t believe it.

"We’ve owned the store for three months. We’ve been robbed three times …" she said to one of the officers, her voice rife with frustration. "This is not a big store. You know what I mean? And it’s just clothes. I mean who is going to steal that stuff? We got ’em breaking through the walls to steal clothes? That’s ridiculous."

Burglars have been busy in Southwest lately. Burglaries of garages, homes and businesses in the 5th Precinct from the first of the year through Oct. 15 were up roughly 30 percent over the same period last year. That’s 264 more burglaries than the 912 reported by mid-October 2006.

Other than rape, which was up 4 percent over last year, burglary was the only crime on the rise in Southwest, according to 5th Precinct crime and arrest statistics released in mid-October. Homicides, robberies, assaults and other crimes were all down. Total crime in the precinct was down 6 percent compared to 2006.

Police have made more than 40 arrests for burglary this year but are faced with many challenges. Lt. Tom Rice, Commander of the 5th Precinct’s Property Crimes Unit, said most burglars are older and experienced, and catching them in the act can be like "catching lightning in a bottle."

Rice said he couldn’t put a finger on a specific cause for this year’s increase, but said "burglary rates seem to go up and down." Attempted burglaries are also part of the statistics, he said.

A key contributor to the problem is a lack of basic home security, Rice said. The bulk of burglaries in the precinct — as much as 70 percent — are unforced. Rice said police could use some help from residents to keep burglars at bay.

"If folks would do what we ask in terms of securing their property and having a good list of their property, that would certainly help us a lot," he said. "And the fact that they are the eyes and ears of their neighborhoods is huge for us in terms of spotting suspicious people, identifying them and stopping what they’re doing."

Taking notice

Burglaries are more prevalent in some neighborhoods than others, but the increase is felt throughout Southwest.

Residents in the Kenwood neighborhood, for instance, are accustomed to virtually no burglaries. Now the neighborhood is experiencing multiple burglaries each month, which has startled some residents.

"Some people have been surprised because they didn’t think it happened that often here," said Kenwood Isles Area Association Chairman Gary Bennett.

As a result of the jump, the neighborhood group planned to host a meeting about property crime prevention Nov. 5.

"We’re trying to get people to focus and be a little bit more aware of what’s happening on their property," Bennett said.

He said the group was also looking into revitalizing its block clubs, which have been largely inactive in recent years.

Matt Perry, president of the East Harriet Farmstead Neighborhood Association, said building block clubs was a priority for his neighborhood, too, and the organization would likely host a community forum about some of East Harriet’s crime issues sometime soon. A similar forum was offered in Lynnhurst earlier this year.

Perry said East Harriet residents are buzzing about the uptick in burglaries.

"I have people talking to me about this either firsthand or with one degree of separation," Perry said. "I have not experienced that since I moved in 15 years ago."

On the battlefield

Cracking down on burglaries has been a recent focus for Sgt. Mike Friestleben and the officers he works with during the "dogwatch" patrol after 9 p.m.

Before heading out, he and his colleagues discuss "hot zones" for various crimes and set up their nights around where the trouble is. Many of the areas targeted for burglaries have been east of Lyndale Avenue and South of Lake Harriet, where single family homes and garages are common.

"We’ll get a map of the precinct showing where all those are happening, wherever there’s been arrests made," he said. "That doesn’t mean that’s where they’re going to hit, but that’s the area we’re going to hit."

Many burglars are repeat offenders and officers are well trained at identifying them, Friestleben said. If a known burglar is spotted, police will talk to them to see what they’re up to and, if there’s a reason to make an arrest, the cuffs will come out.

Officers are also constantly scanning the streets and alleys for suspicious activity, such as slow-moving cars or people out at odd hours of the morning. Police are even listening for the bad guys, Friestleben said.

"Believe it or not, on dogwatch at 2 or 3 in the morning with nothing going on you can sometimes hear the glass break," he said.

But that’s if a burglar needs to break something to get into a building. They often don’t and will try the doors of multiple houses until they find one that’s unlocked, Friestleben said.

Lt. Rice said there are several types of burglars. Some specialize in garages, taking things such as bikes, tools and other items. Others look for TVs, electronics or jewelry in homes. Some only look for wallets, credit cards, cash and checks.

Burglaries happen during the day and at night, he said, and some burglars are brazen. Cutting a window screen to nab a purse off a counter while someone is home is not unheard of, he said.

At 4:30 a.m. on Oct. 16, police arrested a man at a home near 33rd Street and Harriet Avenue who entered while the family was asleep. Aroused by breaking glass and other noises downstairs, the family called police.

Officer Jessica Bartholomew, one of the officers who responded to the call, said police don’t often have the opportunity to make a burglary arrest on-site.

"More get away than we would like just because of the time in between somebody noticing something or the alarm actually going off and the alarm company making it to 911," she said.

Aside from battling burglars during routine shifts, the 5th Precinct has set up overtime patrols that target hot spots. The number of officers working in the patrols varies depending on burglary trends, Rice said.

The precinct also plans to eventually roll out a pilot program that would encourage people to take inventory of valuables, so there’s a better chance of items being returned. Many burglary victims have a hard time describing their losses in enough detail to track them down, Rice said.

The burden of proof

Good descriptions of stolen property can help police find a burglar, Rice said.

But finding someone with a stolen item isn’t enough to make an arrest for burglary. The person could be arrested for possession of stolen property, but a witness description of the suspect or evidence left at the scene is needed to make a burglary charge.

Burglars often leave little at a scene that is of any help to police, especially in an unforced situation. Officers sometimes look for fingerprints, but it’s usually futile because a perfectly dry, smooth surface is needed to get a good print and many burglars wear gloves.

"A lot of people have a huge misconception about fingerprints," Rice said. "In more cases than not most situations do not lend themselves well to getting good fingerprints."

A burglar might also escape a burglary charge if they break into a home but are caught before they steal anything.

Paul Scoggin, chief of the Hennepin County Violent Crimes Prosecution Division, said such situations are frustrating in court.

"If you hear someone break open a door and they run off, you know and I know that it’s likely that person was going to break in and steal something," Scoggin said. "But that’s probably not quite enough to convict that person of burglary."

The sentences for burglaries depend on the severity of the crime, Scoggins said. They can range from a year for a nonresidential burglary to more than four years for a burglary of an occupied dwelling, he said. A repeat offender generally receives 10 additional months for every prior felony, but there are many exceptions to that rule, Scoggins said.

He said he has noticed the rise in burglaries. Individuals who have made the crime their career account for most of them, he said, and taking just a few off the street can sometimes make a big difference. But not every burglar is an adult.

Every now and then juveniles, who are usually involved in more brazen crimes such as robberies, turn up as burglary suspects, he said.

Searching for answers

Police at Jojo’s Urban Clothing on Oct. 20 said they thought a group of teenagers was behind the break-in because of the hip-hop clothing and shoes the store carries.

Whoever did it busted the door of an adjoining vacant space and kicked through the drywall to enter the store. Clothing and shoes were strewn on the floor and a stool was overturned. The cash register was open, but Elkins said she doesn’t keep money there overnight.

More clothes were snagged on a fence behind the building, where police guess the suspects fled. A broken hammer was nearby.

Sgt. Friestleben, officer Bartholomew and several other officers worked the scene. A canine unit showed up with a German shepherd that pulled hard on its leash while trying to pick up a scent.

Elkins stood on the sidewalk in front of her store, in a well-lit area directly across the street from a Burger King, and stared blankly through the window.

"This building had been sitting empty and it’s been kind of an eyesore and we thought, let’s make some more traffic here," she said.

After the first burglary, she and her husband bought an alarm system. They also fortified the back door and wall recently, she said. Stronger wall reinforcement and motion lights were part of her plan for preventing another burglary.

Elkins said she and her husband invested all their savings into the store, so moving isn’t an option. But the burglaries are hard on the small business.

"They’re not coming and taking the T-shirts, you know?" she said. "They’re taking the expensive stuff."

A video camera outside nearby Gray’s Leather might have caught the burglars on their way to the store, but no suspects were in custody or identified as of press time.

Reach Jake Weyer at 436-4367 or [email protected]