Strapped Police Put Burglaries on Back Burner : Crime: Ventura County agencies point to shrinking budgets and fewer officers. Situation frustrates victims.
Auto sales manager Bob Bowe arrived at work early last week to find that thieves had slipped into his Simi Valley dealership overnight, jacked up two pickup trucks and grabbed four new tires worth $2,000.
Bowe was not only outraged by the thefts, but angry because police were quick to say there was not much they could do about the heist.
“This should be a high priority,” Bowe fumed, as he stood next to the tireless trucks and watched an officer fill out a theft report.
Burglaries and thefts, which make up 87.5% of crime in Ventura County, are not a high priority for Ventura County law enforcement agencies. Of the 26,808 crimes reported last year in the county, about half were taken only as reports over the telephone and received no further investigation, authorities said.
Police chiefs say years of shrinking budgets have meant fewer officers to respond to more crimes in a county that is growing ever larger and more violent.
The loss of officers has forced every local police agency to make tough choices about which crimes they can still afford to investigate. Murders, rapes and robberies are top priorities--and violent crime is up one-third since 1980, while total crime is about the same.
Given the surge in violence, burglaries and thefts must take a back seat, especially in the majority of cases where there are no witnesses and little evidence, making the chances of solution low.
“We now take some reports over the phone, whereas 20 years ago an officer would have responded,” Ventura Police Chief Richard Thomas said. “We record the fact that the crime was committed, but we don’t do any follow-up work. And we don’t assign it to a detective.”
Thomas and other top police officials say they are trying to save even more money by increasing the number of reports taken by phone and training more civilians to investigate crime scenes.
“We have not added an investigator in 10 years,” Thomas said.
Officers are generally sent out to home and business burglaries, but they spend little time on them, authorities said. Officers say they spend only about an hour on a typical burglary and even less on a major theft such as the one at Bowe’s Simi Valley car lot.
Patrolman Frank Ahlvers spent just 30 minutes questioning Bowe and dusting one pickup truck for fingerprints last Monday morning. The thieves had left only two rusty jacks for evidence.
“They’re getting bolder and bolder and bolder,” Bowe told the officer. He noted that the brazen bandits stole the tires even though the pickups were parked under bright lights and close to a street that is busy even late at night.
The sales manager questioned the officer: “How many patrol cars do you have out here? Not to insult you or anybody, but . . .!”
Ahlvers calmly responded: “Five or six. We’ve only got so many units out here. We can only do so much.”
Ahlvers, an 11-year veteran, said there is little hope that Bowe will get his tires back. The thieves were professionals who stole for resale, he said. And tires have no serial numbers and are nearly impossible to trace.
“They came in looking for specific targets,” Ahlvers said. “They got a floor jack, an electric impact gun and pulled those puppies off--five minutes max.”
After he left the dealership, Ahlvers wrote a crime report and filed it away. Because there is nothing substantial for him to follow up, he will not investigate any further.
“Only about 5% of the time is there anything to follow up,” Ahlvers said. “If I’m lucky, I’ll hear something later on in connection with this case.”
Unless an eyewitness saw the crime, or pristine fingerprints are available, most burglary reports are filed away and never investigated further, Ahlvers said.
Law enforcement officials say they only have the manpower to investigate cases they have any hope of solving.
Years ago, police officers went into the field to do firsthand investigations of even routine, small-scale crimes such as bike thefts or missing garden hoses. Now, such routine reports are handled over the phone, authorities said.
“When you have limited resources, you have to prioritize,” said Simi Valley Sgt. Robert Gardner, who is in charge of investigating property crimes. “If we go to a scene, and the victim says, ‘It was there, and now it’s gone,’ there’s nothing we can do.”
Police also say the increase in violent crimes has sapped their resources in recent years.
“We put a higher priority on life and individuals than we do on property,” Oxnard Police Chief Harold Hurtt said. “We’re having more violent crime, and we have not made a significant increase in the number of officers.”
Thousand Oaks Police Chief Kathy Kemp said she recently transferred one of her detectives from a property crime detail to the major crimes unit, which investigates violent crimes.
In most burglaries, detectives say, the usual crime-solving methods involve interviewing witnesses, fingerprinting and checking the pawnshops.
But in Ventura, which has one of the highest burglary rates in the county, police say they don’t take fingerprints at some burglaries, depending on the surfaces. For a fingerprint to be any good, it has to be clear and not smeared, Cpl. John Leach said.
“Everybody thinks fingerprints can be taken off the sand, off the wood, you name it,” Leach said. However, glass, metal and other smooth, polished surfaces work best, he said.
Even if police lift decent prints, it only pays off if the suspect’s fingerprints are on file with state or federal agencies, Leach said.
Todd Thayer, a 36-year-old machine engineer, said he was burglarized twice, and both times he asked officers to take fingerprints. And both times they refused, he said, saying it was not worth the effort.
In January, 1992, Thayer had about $2,000 worth of tools and equipment stolen from the private storage company where they were kept.
Besides declining to take fingerprints, Thayer said police “didn’t even list what I lost, because I couldn’t remember precisely everything that was there. They told me to send them a list.”
Later that year, Thayer was victimized again. This time, burglars snatched a specialized sliding window and an engine part from his pickup truck, which was parked outside his apartment in Port Hueneme.
Thayer said he called Port Hueneme police and encountered the same apathetic attitude.
“They never took a fingerprint, even though there were fingerprints all over the place,” Thayer said. “They said it was too much trouble.”
Detective Tony Paradis, who investigates burglaries for Port Hueneme, said patrol officers in his department are supposed to dust for fingerprints off any surface that may retain prints.
“Everyone thinks we’re MacGyver,” Paradis said, referring to the crime-solving hero of a television program. “No one realizes how sophisticated some of these 14-year-old burglars are. Eighty percent of the time, you never get a print.”
But Paradis said it’s understandable that victims feel resentful.
“It’s pure frustration,” Paradis said. “I’ve been a victim of an auto burglary myself a few years ago.”
Paradis said police are upfront with burglary victims about whether they have any hope of getting their property back.
“We let people know exactly what the score is,” Paradis said. “If we have something that we think will lead to an arrest, we’ll tell them. If we have a big zero, we’ll tell them that too. You don’t want to give people false hope.”
Most burglaries are committed by addicts looking to trade stolen merchandise for drugs, Paradis said. Even if police manage to arrest the burglar, chances are the victim won’t get his or her property back, he said.
“By and large, in most burglaries, it will be sold within a few minutes, and those folks won’t ever give up their dope connections,” Paradis said.
Police advise residents to keep a record of the serial numbers on their property, and to put their driver’s license numbers on property that doesn’t have serial numbers.
“We just found a gun that was stolen more than 20 years ago,” Ventura Cpl. Leach said. “The police found it in New York and mailed it back to us because it had a serial number on it.”
But Thayer and other burglary victims who have not recovered their stolen property are often left disillusioned.
“They will spend money to give me a speeding ticket, which in the big scheme of crime is pretty trivial,” Thayer said. “But when something major happens to me, they do nothing.”
BURGLARIES AND THEFTS IN VENTURA COUNTY FOR 1993
City Home burglaries Business burglaries Thefts Camarillo 106 158 793 Fillmore 74 49 183 Moorpark 111 51 239 Ojai 49 35 160 Oxnard 1,098 545 4,425 Port Hueneme *159 * 301 Santa Paula 292 201 744 Simi Valley 406 172 1,632 Thousand Oaks 338 319 1,903 Ventura 755 517 2,999 Unincorporated area 394 232 899 Countywide 3,782 2,279 14,274
City Auto thefts Camarillo 88 Fillmore 32 Moorpark 44 Ojai 19 Oxnard 1,148 Port Hueneme 72 Santa Paula 104 Simi Valley 370 Thousand Oaks 334 Ventura 402 Unincorporated area 164 Countywide 2,777
* 159 is the total number of residential and commercial burglaries in Port Hueneme. Separate categories were not available.
Sources: Ventura County Sheriff’s Department; police departments in Oxnard, Port Hueneme, Santa Paula, Simi Valley and Ventura.