When dawn breaks on the streets of the northwest Bronx, there’s a small chance the sun shines upon the unfortunate victim of a vehicle-related crime.
Whether it’s smashing out windows to grab valuables, stealing tires and rims, or even taking the whole vehicle, it seems more and more these days that a car parked on the street is a potential target. That perception has grown even more thanks to social media platforms like Facebook, where many of the victims post pictures of their damaged cars for the world to see.
While crimes of opportunity such as this are way down from what they once were just 20 years ago, it’s still a problem, and one the 50th Precinct says it has a multi-pronged approach to address.
“We know there are individuals who linger around the 50th Precinct,” said Sgt. Mark Giordano, the neighborhood coordination officer supervisor for this part of the Bronx.
“They’re kind of our usual customers. We monitor them, we check their names for warrants, check to see if they’re wanted for anything, or what have you.”
If there’s a warrant, police will bring them in. If not, Giordano said, officers keep tabs on them to ensure they’re not up to no good.
Plainclothes officers in unmarked cars also patrol neighborhoods, and have actually caught some in the act of breaking into cars, he added. And just in case some would-be thieves start to catch wind of these more stealth patrols, patrol officers will switch up their hours, like to increase patrols at night when many vehicle crimes tend to occur.
“That’s a little bit of a challenge because that’s a lot of ground to cover and we have a limited number of officers,” Giordano said. “But we do our best to be out there.”
And there’s some science to this as well. Police study data of past crimes to
help them predict where and when thieves may strike next.
“We will look at our historical numbers and pick out hot spots where it seems to be more activity than normal and monitor those areas,” Giordano said.
When break-ins and thefts do happen — as they will — investigators do some old-fashioned detective work by canvasing neighborhoods, knocking on doors, and asking folks whether they’ve seen anything suspicious.
But the biggest help to catching these thieves are a bit less old-fashioned: video cameras. Whether it’s the security camera on a home or business, a camera mounted on a car, or even the city-funded ones installed in hot spots around the precinct, these digital eyes are always watching, and can make a difference between catching someone, and letting them go free to maybe victimize someone else.
For example, a recent car burglary on Johnson Avenue was captured on video. That allowed officers to get a basic description of the car used by the perps to get into the neighborhood, but unfortunately the video resolution isn’t high enough to read the car’s plate number. Yet, that’s still enough of a lead for investigators to begin looking for a car matching the description, Giordano said.
“Video really is our best resource, but again, that’s a matter of if the video is going to catch something,” Giordano said. “That’s why we need more of them and why we need people clamoring to their elected officials to fund more of them and put them up in more places.”
Councilman Andrew Cohen says he budgets $100,000 annually to supplement purchases of high-resolution cameras for not only the 50th Precinct, but for the other precincts his council district touches, like the 47th and 52nd precincts. C
Cohen also has successfully pushed for more officers to be assigned to the 50th — something that’s not easy to do, considering the precinct’s low crime rates compared to the rest of the borough.
While it’s indisputable the 50th has less violent crimes than other areas in the Bronx, Cohen said, it only shines a brighter light on what many perceive to be a high number of vehicle break-ins and other criminal mischief involving vehicles parked on the street.
“Sometimes they know who it is who did it, and sometimes there’s not really any evidence, so a camera provides a vital link between (Bronx District Attorney) Darcel Clark’s office and the 50th Precinct,” the councilman said. “So when we catch somebody, we’re effectively using the police resources, and we can get the person off the street so they’re not continuing the pattern of crime.”
Clear evidence in a criminal case is vital for prosecutors to do their job. The Bronx DA’s office has worked with the 50th Precinct for years to address auto-related crimes common in this area. Precinct commanding officer Emilio Melendez has also pointed in the recent past to a stronger working relationship with Clark’s office to help identify some of the bigger repeat offenders and keep them off the street.
But getting arrested for crimes like vehicle theft doesn’t necessarily mean jail time for the perpetrator, however. Prosecutors consider a number of options, according to DA’s office spokeswoman Patrice O’Shaughnessy, including offer opportunities for treatment to address the underlying causes of repeated crime, like substance abuse and addiction.
But probably the best way to prevent vehicle-related theft is to make it harder or less appealing to steal, Giordano said. Keeping serial numbers for all electronics in the car is one way to help catch a thief — If it’s stolen and the perp tries to pawn it, police can track them down that way using pawnshop surveillance footage.
“I know parking is at a premium, but try to park in an area that’s as well-lit as you can,” he added. “Try parking it in a secure area and make sure you don’t leave anything showing inside. Make sure it’s as empty as it can be.”