Guns, money, electronics among items stolen
By Anthony Caciopo
Regional News Editor
Personal property is disappearing from motor vehicles at an increased rate, typically overnight, and law enforcement says it’s almost entirely preventable.
Wallets, purses, laptops, cash, GPS devices, watches and more are all being spirited away, with ease, by roving criminals who do nothing more than open unlocked doors and help themselves to whatever is inside.
And they occasionally get even “luckier”—from the their point of view—by finding the keys to the vehicle or, in a worst-case scenario, a firearm.
“We’ve seen a significant uptick in thefts from motor vehicles,” said Palos Heights Deputy Chief Bill Czajkowski. “These aren’t burglaries, because there’s no forced entry. It’s just people leaving their cars unlocked.”
Police chiefs from Palos Heights, Palos Park and Orland Park spoke with The Regional News in recent days to describe a situation in their towns that’s growing. They and their departments are amping up efforts to educate the public and put an end to, or greatly reduce, these preventable crimes.
“It’s increasing,” said Orland Park chief of Police Tim McCarthy. “It seems like every other night there’s been one or two (incidents),” he said, estimating the rise to be about 100 percent over August of last year.
“Every single one of these that happens bothers me a lot because it’s our residents being victimized,” McCarthy said, and he’s not alone.
Bigger than just loose coins
“People need to understand how serious this really is in the big picture,” McCarthy said. “(When a resident says) ‘my car was rifled through and they took some change,’ well that’s true, but it causes the criminals to continue to do this and then they hit the jackpot—they get a gun, they get IDs, they get a laptop.”
Guns have been reported stolen from vehicles in Orland Park and Palos Park.
Palos Park Chief of Police Joe Miller describes the thieves’ methods, a scenario played out overnight in multiple suburbs throughout the Chicago metropolitan area, especially communities in which the perpetrators perceive a higher level of affluence and/or ready targets.
He said he monitors radio transmissions from a number of different communities and calls the theft operations “road shows.”
“They wear dark clothing, they wear backpacks, they cruise up and down our streets,” Miller said. “You see them walking with impunity, up to a driveway, checking all the car doors. It’s almost like a field trip.”
Nightly ‘visitors’ have a system
Miller, McCarthy and Police Chief Larry Yott of Palos Heights all note that the thieves typically arrive in the targeted communities in a single car with multiple occupants. The drivers drop off their passengers, who fan out into the neighborhoods. Sometimes the drivers take part, sometimes they drive away with the car in order to provide less of an opportunity for local residents to notice, and alert authorities, about a suspicious vehicle in the area.
The thieves then rendezvous at another location.
“The kids are often already in stolen cars,” said McCarthy. “They simply drive into neighborhoods late at night, just walking down the street. Many departments have video of this.
“They’ll rifle through the cars, front seat, back seat, glovebox. They’ll often take the garage door opener. If the keys are in the car, they’ll take the car, too,” he said.
And the theft of the vehicle isn’t often for simple joyriding. A vehicle, like a gun, can end up being part of serious crime.
Stolen SUV from Palos Hts. part of crime spree
Deputy Chief Czajkowski of Palos Heights described a recent situation in which a stolen vehicle from Harvey was driven to Palos Heights, where the thieves found two easy targets.
“They dumped it on 76th Avenue,” he said of the stolen vehicle, and the criminals soon spotted a BMW and a Jeep in a driveway.
“The BMW had the valet key to the Jeep in it,” Czajkowski explained. “The criminals grabbed that Jeep Aug. 11 and it became part of a crime spree in Chicago and the north suburbs.”
Chillingly, the Jeep was eventually driven back to Harvey where it was used in a homicide, according to police. The vehicle has since been located, but not its driver, said Czajkowski.
The newest style of thefts “Has become quite the crime,” said Chief Yott of Palos Heights. “It’s been around for a long time, but we used to see it happen parked out in front of the gym, the Jewel lot, at the doctors’ offices. But now, that’s completely fallen off. It’s all this overnight stuff.”
Public awareness is key
Each of the three local departments is fighting the situation with public education. The methods include outreach to local media, Tweets and Facebook postings, beat meetings, social events with cops and local residents, movable lighted signage that flashes reminder messages, and more.
“We’ve gone so far as sending out our Community Service Officers (CSOs) from about midnight to about three o’clock in the morning, and we put a sticker on every car parked on the street,” said McCarthy.
The sticker reminds drivers to lock their vehicles. McCarthy said the CSOs do not check to see if vehicles are unlocked. Rather, the CSOs simply post the sticker to all parked cars they encounter. An idea being weighed is sending reminder postcards through the mail to local residents, he said.
Miller of Palos Park noted that the last couple of weekends, he and additional officers have been out on patrol.
“It’s a major focus of ours on every patrol, every night, hitting those side streets,” he said. “If they’re fearful of coming to Palos Park, to Palos Heights (and Orland Park), they’re probably going to move down the road,” he said.
Offenders are often juveniles
Complicating deterrence is the fact that most of the offenders aren’t adults.
“Traditionally, they’re going to be adjudicated through a juvenile proceeding depending on the State’s Attorney’s decision to prosecute them and move forward with the case,” said Miller. “There’s very little accountability for their actions. Normally, they’re released that night to their parents. The age group we’re talking about, there’s no fear.”
And the criminals know they can take off driving at high speed with little chance of being curbed, because police must weigh the risk of a pursuit for what is essentially a property crime.
“We have a very restrictive pursuit policy,” said Czajkowski, the deputy chief of Palos Heights.
And it’s not that the perpetrators aren’t being caught, it’s just that there are so many coming, said Yott.
“We catch ‘em all the time,” he said. “If you go to Palos Park or Orland Park, wherever you go, you’re going to hear stories about how we catch these guys.
“It just never ends,” Yott said. “They arrest three and there are six more to take their place.”
McCarthy, Miller, Yott and Czajkowski know there’s a relatively simple solution, but getting local residents to remember to lock their cars isn’t easy. Each chief describes, in different terms, a process called “hardening the target,” and each chief, too, admits that anyone can forget to secure a car door or garage door, even themselves.
But a regular practice of not locking vehicles is a different story.
“It’s so preventable, it’s silly we’re even talking about it,” said McCarthy. “There’s complacency, more than we should have. People pride themselves on never locking their front doors, but the bad guys have figured this out.”
“Sometimes people think that their individual community is somehow immune, or there’s something that can be done to insulate them,” said Yott of Palos Heights. “It’s no longer that way.
“It’s long past when individual towns were individual towns,” he said. “Today, this is a giant metropolitan area.”
“The public is at a ‘disadvantage’ because they live in Palos Park,” said Miller. “If you grew up in Chicago, you knew you didn’t go to bed until you locked up.”
Local law enforcement invites local residents to participate in the crime prevention technique known as the #9pmRoutine, which urges the public to “Bring valuables inside, lock your car, lock your windows, lock your doors.”