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Police Fight to Get Handle on Downtown Car Burglars

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United Press International

Smashing a window or jimmying a lock and making off with whatever belongings are left in the open requires little criminal talent, but the typical downtown car burglar has definitely made his presence known.

Faced with the highest incidence of car break-ins in Los Angeles--about 20 a day--Central Division police regularly send undercover officers to sit in borrowed cars on targeted street corners. They rarely arrest fewer than three auto burglars a day, usually in broad daylight.

“There must be a grapevine for people who show up in town with no means,” said Sgt. Lane Sterling, who directs a special police unit targeting car break-ins.

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“First they find out where to get free food and cheap rooms. Then they get a grubstake on criminal life by breaking into cars. It seems to be a common thing.”

Few Steps to Sell Loot

Sterling said the thief usually needs only to walk a few steps down the street to sell goods gained from the crime.

“What they get--say, for a $300 stereo--varies,” Sterling said. “It could be 20 or 30 bucks or $65. It depends on how desperate or lucky they are.”

Drawing a profile of the average car burglar would be a difficult exercise, but Sterling said police have recently been arresting a substantial number of illegal Mexican and Central American immigrants. A large number of car break-ins are reported around downtown churches and other buildings providing sanctuary for illegal aliens, he said.

“When we are able to talk to them, they usually say they sell goods they steal to get food and the creature comforts,” Sterling said. “Not all are supporting drug habits.”

Others, however, use the street knowledge they acquire by breaking into cars to advance their criminal careers and illicit habits.

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“Some get into car burglaries, sell some property, buy some pot or crack cocaine and start selling that,” Sterling said. “Other times it’s a straight exchange--goods for dope. We’ve arrested a lot of narcotics dealers we got on car burglaries several months earlier.”

By plotting the location of each of last year’s 6,586 downtown car break-ins on a map and using a computer, police have focused on three areas where auto burglaries are most frequent.

Parking Lots Popular Targets

One, encompassing the Civic Center and Chinatown, is popular with thieves because of the large number of all-day parking lots.

Another, a shopping area bordered by San Pedro, Los Angeles, 2nd and 5th streets, contains a high volume of street parking and packages left inside cars. The garment district--between Maple Street, Broadway, 11th Street and Pico Boulevard--also has a high incidence of car break-ins.

Though the effect on victims is minimal compared to violent crimes, car break-ins have a definite impact on an already irritating facet of modern life--auto insurance.

Rick Dinon of 20th Century Insurance Co. said anyone victimized by car burglars more than once might encounter problems with adjusters.

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“Within a certain period of time, it becomes an uninsurable event--like insuring your tires against wear or like owning a Corvette in Manhattan,” Dinon said.

“Individuals (facing multiple break-ins) might consider having a very large comprehensive deduction, like $1,000, or they might elect not to replace a stolen stereo and leave the hole (in the dashboard) or they decide not to carry comprehensive insurance at all,” Dinon said.

That attitude, he said, is not “uncaring,” it’s “practical.”

Sterling said car owners parking downtown can take precautions.

“The ones we catch aren’t ripping out stereos because most attack when they can’t stay very long,” he said. “So they take something in view.

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