Car prowlers on the rise in Duluth

Ask Scott Brelie if he thinks Duluth, Minn., is a safe place to live. In the four years Brelie has lived in Duluth, he has never had any major issues with crime. That changed in the past few months, as his car has been broken into twice. “We called the police and they said there had been multiple break-ins in the past month, unbeknownst to us, and that it was a growing problem up by the mall,” Brelie said. Photo Credit: Lisa Mattson

Brelie, a native of Two Harbors, Minn., lives and works in the Hillside neighborhood. In December of 2010, his car was broken into for the first time at the Miller Hill Mall.

Brelie and his girlfriend parked at the mall in a well-lit, busy area and didn’t think twice about it being dangerous. When they came out, they noticed that the passenger side window was smashed and his girlfriend’s purse was gone.

“We called the police and they said there had been multiple break-ins in the past month, unbeknownst to us, and that it was a growing problem up by the mall,” Brelie said. “They also said that they thought it was the same group of guys.”

The police officer told them that a special tool was used to quietly shatter the window. Brelie also found out that this problem was bigger than he thought.

“The police officer said that statistically there have been more break-ins this year than any other year,” Brelie said.

According to the Duluth Police Department’s Four Year Crime Trend Comparisons data, the number of reported vehicle prowls in 2010 was 1055. In 2009, there were 961 reported prowls.

Car prowls are a growing problem at The Miller Hill Mall in Duluth, Minn.  To help prevent a break-in, keep any valuables in your car out of sight. Photo Credit: Lisa Mattson

The numbers have increased in the early months of 2011. In January and February of 2011, there were 112 reported vehicle prowls, an increase from the first two months of 2010 by 106 prowls.

The same report has shown a trend in the time of year that vehicle prowls increase. The most common times are warm summer months and the holiday season. This past holiday season marked the largest rise in vehicle prowls.

Officer Brad Wick wrote in a press release that “car prowls are crimes of opportunity. A car prowler makes a split second decision to break into a vehicle based on the perception there are valuables in the vehicle and making it worth the risk.”

Wick also wrote that a vehicle prowl can take only a minute and they most commonly occur between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m.

A few months after the first break in, Brelie’s car was broken into again in the alleyway behind his house.

“I don’t lock my car doors or keep anything valuable in my car after what happened at the mall,” Brelie said. “Nothing was stolen and there was no damage, but the dome light was on in my car and I could tell someone was in there.”

With his car being broken into twice in less than two months, Brelie has noticed an increase of car prowls in Duluth.

“It’s a growing problem and it might have something to do with a sociological thing with the economy or something,” Brelie said.

According to the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), a Washington based law enforcement organization, crime rates have increased during every economic downturn since the 1950s.

Since 2008, crime rates have begun to rise and many police department budgets have been cut.

PERF reports that of the 233 police agencies surveyed, “44 percent reported a rise in certain types of crime they attributed to the United States' worst economic and financial crisis in decades.” PERF also reported that they had seen a 40 percent increase in vehicle prowls, something that Brelie has noticed in Duluth.

Other than an increase in vehicle prowls, a growing issue is the inability of the police to catch these perpetrators. Brelie thinks that if the police had more officers to patrol the streets in all areas of Duluth to look for suspicious people, there would be less crime.

However, when Brelie’s car was broken into at the mall, he was told that it was probably the same group of guys. He thinks the car prowls at the mall need to be dealt with immediately.

The police reported that the increase in car prowls is most evident by the Miller Hill Mall. Retail shoppers are prime targets for car prowlers because they are often distracted and prowlers know they have valuables, the police said in a press release. The other common areas for car prowlers to hit are hiking and biking trails and theaters.

“If they had a better security system at the mall it might change things,” Brelie said. “They have those mall cops that drive around, but to be honest, I don’t think they really do anything. There was a mall cop parked around the corner from where we were parked and our car was still broken into.”

Brelie suggests that the police implement security cameras and lighting by the mall as a means of decreasing the vehicle prowls. However, he isn’t even sure if that would help.

“Usually the people who commit these crimes have a plan in mind,” Brelie said. “The guy that broke into my car at the mall had a special tool and probably watched us walk in. It’s hard to track that. These people are quick and they know what they are doing.”

The Duluth Police Department has its own solutions to this problem.

The police department said in a press release that “car (or vehicle) prowls are one of the easiest crimes to reduce with increased awareness.”

The police suggest that ways to avoid having your car being broken into include removing valuables completely or putting them in the trunk, parking in visible, well-lit areas, removing keys from the car and, most importantly, report any suspicious behavior to the police.

After filing a police report for both incidents, Brelie hasn’t heard any news about catching the perpetrator of either crime.

“As long as they don’t charge using the credit card they stole, there is really no way to track them,” Brelie said. “There were no security cameras in the parking lot and the mall cops don’t really provide much security. It’s just unfortunate.”

Have you had any problems with car crime in Duluth or the local area? What do you think needs to be done? Let us know in the comments.

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