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Preventing Neighborhood Crime

Clusters of burglaries exploited local vulnerabilities.

In the past month, two instances of multiple, brazen burglaries have highlighted the vulnerability of many suburban neighborhoods in Mount Vernon. The burglars exploited several features of local neighborhoods, according to Mount Vernon Crime Prevention Officer Greg Kotteman.

The area has older homes, which require repairs and remodeling. Workers come and go frequently throughout the neighborhood, meaning there are usually many strangers with legitimate reasons to park in front of houses and traipse through backyards.

The burglars who struck two homes in Stratford Landing on the afternoon of July 7 apparently cased the neighborhood by car before choosing the two homes, one on Ryegate Lane, another on Londonderry Road. The burglars were seen by several people in the area, according to an e-mail from one of the victims. But apparently no one thought their presence in the neighborhood, or even in one of the victims’ yards, warranted suspicion.

In the middle of the night nine days later, on July 16, one or more burglars entered five more homes only a few miles away. The homes were located on streets along Vernon View Drive: Tower House Place, Price’s Lane, Beatty Drive and River Farm Drive. A home on Southdown Road and another on Edgewood Terrace were also burgled the same night. Police believe the seven burglaries were related, according to Det. Kevin Clarke.

The burglar who committed this crime exploited several vulnerabilities of many Mount Vernon neighborhoods. The most decisive, according to Kotteman, was preventable. Six of the seven homes were entered through unlocked doors.

The burglar also took advantage of the darkness that pervades the many blocks of Mount Vernon that lack streetlights. He stole small items like wallets, cell-phones and purses that the police believe he spotted through windows while creeping close to the homes.

THE TWO SETS of burglaries are dissimilar in many ways. Those in Stratford Landing were committed in daylight. The burglars thoroughly searched the house before stealing large items like a laptop computer and flat screen television as well as jewelry, videogames, cameras and a cell phone, according to the e-mail.

The daylight raids suggest a different mindset than those that occur at night, according to Kotteman. He said burglars hit homes during the day “precisely because of the fact that they don’t want to encounter a homeowner.”

“The nighttime stuff bothers me,” Kotteman said, “because if you break into somebody’s house at night, the likelihood is there’s going to be someone home … It’s more risky behavior to do that. Then you have to take the next logical step, ‘What else would they be willing to do?’”

THESE CONCERNS have unnerved residents of neighborhoods struck by crime. But neighbors have opportunities to reduce their community’s vulnerability as well as their own.

Tom Burgess, president of the Stratford Landing Citizens Association, listed incidents in the past when the community had helped police itself. In 2004, neighbors instituted midnight stakeouts after someone began smashing car windshields. Burgess said they eventually identified a culprit, and after a convincing discussion with the police, the vandalism stopped.

A few months later, when a burglar was working in the neighborhood, residents eventually identified him as a “guy riding around on his ten-speed [bike] in spandex workout gear.”

Burgess said the association is creating a more comprehensive e-mail list, so that neighbors can keep in touch with one another and abreast of what is happening around them. But he said the association’s biggest crime-fighting project will be the installation of 24 new streetlights. After going door-to-door for the past few months, they have finally secured the permission for the necessary easements.

Kotteman reiterated the importance of these lights. “We live in fairly dark communities,” he said. “I encourage people who have exterior lights to use those lights all night every night … You can surveil your property and others can surveil it as well.”

Kotteman recommended positioning exterior lights to shine in any area of the yard that was poorly illuminated. He also encouraged people to leave their lights on all night. “You’re making the community safer when you do this,” he said. “The darkness is the criminal’s friend.”

Kotteman also warned against leaving anything valuable, such as a cell phone or wallet, visible from a window. He advised people to put them away or draw the shades.

Kotteman said people should be alert to any suspicious activity from people who may appear at first glance as if they have a legitimate reason to be in someone’s yard. He said that a landscaper peering through a window, or a group of carpenters disappearing into the backyard while one man stood watch in the front, should trigger alarms.

“Go with your gut,” he said. “Your body gives you a feeling on a situation that you’re looking at … If they’re there to do something wrong, they’re going to exhibit some behavior that will make you feel uncomfortable”

But Kotteman stressed that using locks is the best way to prevent crime. “The biggest thing I can encourage people to do is even when they are home their doors should be locked,” he said. Using door locks on the car and the house gives people “a huge ability to reduce the opportunity crime that we’re allowing now by not locking up.”