Safe Houses : Looking Out for One Another in War On Crime

North County is a pleasant place to live, and thousands of people every year prove the point by moving here. But even the Garden of Eden had a snake.

We have crime, crime statistics and the grief that goes with them. It is an unwelcome fact of life that some people will lie, cheat, steal and injure other people to get what they want.

But individuals can do much to limit the reach of criminals, police say. The single most important step doesn't cost a cent: Get to know your neighbors.

It also pays to examine with the eye of a crook your habits and surroundings. Are you making yourself an unnecessarily attractive target? Do you make it easy for someone to walk off with valuables?

Although North County also has its share of homicides and violent assaults, a far greater number of people are affected by crimes against property--car thefts and home burglaries.

Individuals can and should become activists in the fight against crime, police say. It can drastically reduce the chances of becoming a victim. Alert behavior is more important than technology.

Here are some things--obvious and maybe not so obvious--to think about as you make your corner of the world as safe as possible.

KNOW YOUR NEIGHBORS

In the old days everybody knew who lived next door and down the street, and sometimes who was on the other side of town. Now, many of us don't know who lives in the apartment upstairs or the house across the street.

All crime prevention professionals say the same thing: The better you know your neighbor, the better able you will be to tell when trouble may be knocking at your door.

This doesn't mean becoming a busybody. But it does help to know who is likely to be home in case of an emergency, whether the people living around you work during the day or the night, what their cars look like, and what their telephone numbers are.

KNOW YOUR POLICE

North County is a maze of cities, towns and unincorporated areas served by several different police forces. Know who protects you.

All of these agencies can be reached in an emergency by dialing 911.

The San Diego County Sheriff's Department patrols much of North County. In all, there are about 212 working deputies in these districts, although that number can vary.

The region is divided into several service areas:

* Encinitas command (Del Mar, Solana Beach, Encinitas and unincorporated areas), 753-1252;

* Vista command (Vista, San Marcos and unincorporated areas), 940-4551;

* Poway command (Poway and unincorporated areas), 748-7400;

* Fallbrook substation (Fallbrook, Bonsall and Rainbow), 728-1115;

* Ramona substation (Ramona and surrounding areas), 789-1200.

Three cities have their own police forces, which operate within their city limits.

* Oceanside, with 191 officers, 966-4900.

* Escondido, with 133 sworn officers, 741-4721

* Carlsbad, with 79 officers, 931-2197

Parts of North County fall within the city of San Diego police jurisdiction.

* Rancho Bernardo/Rancho Penasquitos area, 743-8981;

* Mira Mesa/Scripps Ranch area, 695-8422.

State highways in North County are patrolled by the California Highway Patrol.

* Oceanside office, 757-1675.

SECURE YOUR HOME

The Sheriff's Department says there were 3,071 residential burglaries in its North County patrol area last year. Cities were also hard hit. In Oceanside, for example, 577 residences were burgled.

According to Patty Drain, crime prevention specialist at the sheriff's Encinitas command, alarms and lights are big deterrents to home crime.

She advises homeowners to install lights timed to go on at dusk and off at dawn or motion-sensitive lights that will switch on when movement is detected.

In addition, all windows should be fitted with locks, doors should have a deadbolt, and all windows and doors should remain locked, even when you are at home.

When leaving the house, even for overnight stays, be sure the house looks lived in. That means hooking the lights to a timer, leaving a radio on and not closing the blinds all the way.

Everyone in the household should be familiar with how the house functions--such as where the circuit box is, how windows and doors operate, how to open locks. If only one person knows those things, other members of the family may find themselves stranded.

Drain said homeowners and apartment renters should feel free to call the department for a free home security evaluation that will specify safety measures each resident can take.

VALUABLES

You can protect your valuables even if a thief manages to enter your home. According to sheriff's Detective Sgt. Jerry Lewis, a good home safe can prevent a thief in a hurry from bothering with its contents.

In general, he said, the more hidden the valuables, the less time a thief will have to look for them.

But it's tough to hide televisions, VCRs and stereos, other favorite targets of burglars. However, engraving an identification number--such as a Social Security or driver's license number--on your property will help police identify recovered goods.

KNOW WHO'S KNOCKING

What do you do when a door-to-door solicitor comes knocking? First, do not feel obliged to answer the door, especially if you are not expecting anyone. Look out the side window or through a peephole. Ask the caller to identify himself.

"We say do not open the door until you are comfortable with that person," Drain said. "Do not open the door to somebody you do not know."

TEACH KIDS AND LEARN

Children need to be taught the basics of protecting themselves and their homes. For instance, they should be taught never to answer the door when a stranger calls, to never give out family details over the telephone and to keep doors and windows locked. They should also know who to call in an emergency.

But kids can teach adults a few tricks, too.

According to Drain, kids "always know everything that goes on in the neighborhood. If adults knew half as much as the kids there would be a lot less crime."

SECURE YOUR CAR

Stealing a car or the items in it is a popular crime.

There were 2,135 auto burglaries last year and 2,599 auto thefts in the sheriff's patrol area. In Oceanside, there were 1,907 cars prowled (instances of burglary or attempted theft) and 1,457 autos stolen.

Some car models have risen to the top of the hit parade. According to Lewis, any car in the Toyota line is a prime target, followed by recreational vehicles, Mazda Miatas, sport pick-up trucks and other sports cars.

It seems Toyotas are easier to break into and, because there are so many of them, stolen Toyotas are easy to sell either by the piece or whole.

Drain advocates keeping cars locked even when they are in a garage. If there is no garage available, keep cars parked in a well-lighted area.

Never leave items such as a purse, gym bag, or cassette tapes lying in the car. A car alarm that sounds or one that automatically shuts off the ignition is a good bet, especially if you add a visible deterrent such as a bar that locks the steering wheel, a measure Lewis strongly endorsed.

WATCH WHAT YOU SAY

Keep talk of vacations or overnight trips low key. The fewer people who know you are away the better.

When you chat with people such as sales clerks who you don't know well, don't reveal personal information, such as when your Social Security check arrives or when you do your banking.

Seniors are especially advised to be cautious about sharing personal details with telephone solicitors or strangers on the street. Some criminals find easy prey in the person who appears lonely or confused.

PET PATROL

Many people have a pet that not only keeps them company but alerts them when something seems amiss. It's the kind of warning signal that can be very helpful if you're at home.

On the other hand, pets themselves are occasionally the victims of crime.

According to Lewis, pets--especially dogs--can be protected simply by locking gates so a thief would have to carry them over a fence, a task that is both difficult and conspicuous.

BUDDY SYSTEM

Criminals are much less likely to accost two people than one. When you can't share an outing with a friend, avoid isolated areas.

Ask friends or taxi drivers who are dropping you off to wait a minute to see that you get inside safely. When dropping someone off at home, extend the same courtesy.

LOOK SHARP

Don't act afraid. Don't shuffle along with your head bowed. Walk straight ahead, eyes forward, and take in your environment to let a potential criminal know you are an active, vital part of the scene.

Avoid routine. Many people, especially seniors, fall into well-defined patterns, such as going to the bank on certain days, shopping at certain times and so on. Use automatic deposit to avoid carrying cash or checks.

Don't carry a purse when you don't need it. Many people do not need to carry a purse for the few small items they use, but carry one anyway out of habit. Put cash, tissues and keys in a safe pocket.

SPOTTING A DRUG HOUSE

Knowing your neighbors can also work in the negative sense. If you see many automobiles from outside the area drive up to a residence at all hours for short periods of time, you may be looking at a house where drugs are being sold.

Unusual chemical odors often waft from houses where drugs are manufactured. Don't approach the house yourself, but do call law officers to investigate.

MUGGING THE MUGGER

Although anyone, young or old, can be a target, victims can make a mugger's victory short-lived.

First, if the mugger is armed, give up and give him what he wants. If the attacker is unarmed, you can try to flee to a crowded area or resist. If it seems unlikely you will succeed, then give in.

While handing over your valuables, be sure to notice everything you can about the thief, including height, weight, hair color, eye color, special marks, accents, clothing--anything that might be of help to police.

THE ONLY THING TO FEAR

According to Nancy Aguilera, the crime prevention supervisor for the Sheriff's Department in North County, falling into a "cycle of fear" is a critical mistake. Fear, she said, can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

"A person can become afraid of what could happen, so he or she withdraws into their home, so nobody sees anything around them."

Instead, said Aguilera, people should become active in crime prevention.

"Don't make yourself into a victim," Aguilera said.

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