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Burglary on rise in St. Petersburg

St. Petersburg police Officer Johnny Harris conducts the check for the resident of a Monticello Park home recently. The department conducts free home security checks.

CHERIE DIEZ | Times

St. Petersburg police Officer Johnny Harris conducts the check for the resident of a Monticello Park home recently. The department conducts free home security checks.

ST. PETERSBURG — Sharon Nivens realized someone had been in her house the moment she got home from work.

The bottom panel of a window near her back door was gone.

Throughout the house, drawers were opened.

In her room, jewelry and a cell phone and charger were missing.

Deja vu.

Nivens, 58, has been burglarized before. Thursday, in fact, was the third time in recent months.

"I didn't have anything left for them to take," said Nivens, who works with the homeless at Boley Centers, an advocacy group. "But I guess you never know."

Nivens isn't alone. She's part of a rising tide of people whose homes, cars and businesses have been broken into recently. Last month, dozens of people became victims in her Central Oak Park neighborhood, which straddles Central Avenue between 34th and 49 streets.

Property crimes in the city are up, according to the most recent statistics from St. Petersburg police. Burglaries, larceny and auto theft increased 7.5 percent from January to May, compared with the same period last year. In Midtown, a broad swath south of Second Avenue N and east of 34th Street, property crimes went up 13 percent compared with the first few months of 2008.

"I'm particularly concerned about the summer," St. Petersburg police Chief Chuck Harmon told the St. Petersburg Times. "I think there's going to be a lot more kids on the streets without supervised activities. That's a big concern for me as it relates to property crime."

That's because property crimes, particularly burglaries, are often crimes of opportunity, said Sgt. Tim Montanari, who is in charge of the department's burglary unit. It's also not uncommon for such crimes to go up as the economy goes south, experts say.

"We've got a lot of things stacked against us with property crime," Montanari said. "I don't want to say it's a perfect storm, but it's getting there."

Other law enforcement agencies — including the Tampa, Clearwater and Largo police departments — said they've seen slight decreases in property crimes when comparing the first quarter of 2009 with the year before.

The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office said this year's official statistics won't be available for a few months, but that internal tracking showed more than 2,000 calls were dispatched as burglaries from January to June.

In St. Petersburg, thieves seem to be more brazen than in years past, Montanari said.

Throughout the city, he and others say, the following scenario is being played out:

The burglars, usually young men, are going up to homes and knocking on the front door or ringing the doorbell. They show up during the day, when people are at work.

If they don't get an answer, they might move on to the back door to check that, too. Once that's clear, they make their way inside any way they can.

It could mean breaking a window or kicking in a door. Sometimes they get lucky with unlocked properties, especially vacant and foreclosed homes.

The thieves are in and out in minutes, grabbing whatever they can carry or stuff into vehicles.

Montanari said their loot is often flat-screen TVs, small electronics, appliances, tools, jewelry, cash and guns. Some crooks are even making off with air conditioners and pool cleaners.

"It seems bolder to me — to go up to somebody's front door and kick it in broad daylight," Montanari said.

Some of the thieves are even brave enough to pretend they belong at the house, carrying clipboards or lawn tools, said Ronald Rolland, president of the Central Oak Park Neighborhood Association.

The neighborhood, one of the city's largest, has been afflicted with property crimes recently, Rolland said.

In May, he said, there were 35 burglary calls in 30 days. And when Rolland went door to door earlier this year, he estimated three out of five people said they had been burglarized or knew someone who had.

"That's how bad it's gotten," Rolland said.

"What spooks you is you have to assume they know your habits," said Nivens, who lost a brand new laptop in the first break-in and her car in the second. "It's a violation, definitely. It puts you on alert — in a negative way."

Officials say they are aware of the rise in burglaries and have taken several steps to stop them.

Several months ago, Harmon commissioned a study that examined the upward trend in burglaries in the city from 2006 to 2008. Most are to unlocked cars and homes, they found.

Starting Monday, the department is adding two crime prevention officers. Police also are working with the Department of Juvenile Justice to track the city's top burglars, a tactic that helped curb auto thefts last year.

And Montanari's unit, which used to have six slots, is now fully staffed with 10 detectives, who cover everything from specific neighborhoods like Childs Park, working with pawnshops or focusing on specific types of property.

"I think we're doing everything we can to curb these things," Montanari said.

Still, police say, they can't do all the work.

Part of the reason the burglars are able to get away with these things, they say, is because they're aided by complacent neighbors.

People are less likely to know their neighbors these days and are loath to get involved, said Officer Johnny Harris, who's been running the department's crime prevention unit by himself for several years.

Harris said burglars used to be afraid of making noise when they went to a house. Now, he said, they'll break windows and doors, knowing the chance of someone seeing them or reporting it is likely slim.

This latest uptick, however, has served as a wakeup call for many.

Several neighborhood associations say they are trying to turn things around by ramping up crime watch programs and encouraging residents to report suspicious behavior.

Rolland said more than 400 residents are now on neighborhood watch lists. And crime watch coordinators have started a database of recent incidents, along with reports of suspicious people and cars roaming neighborhoods.

"They have some cute tricks but now we're on to them," Rolland said. "We've got the neighborhood re-energized. And we're not letting anybody frustrate us to where it's going to make us stop fighting back."

Times staff writer Jamal Thalji contributed to this report. Kameel Stanley can be reached at (727) 893-8643 or kstanley@sptimes.com.

Tips for protecting yourself from property crime

For your car

• Always lock your doors.

• Never leave anything valuable in plain sight, including loose change and Global Positioning System mounts.

For your home

• Make sure all doors/windows are locked.

• Never hide keys around the outside of your home.

• Trim bushes and other landscaping to eliminate easy hiding places.

• Make sure there is lighting on all sides of your house.

• Invest in a dead bolt that's at least 1-inch long and make sure the strike plate is reinforced.

• Make a list of your valuables, including serial numbers.

• Get to know your neighbors, and join or create a crime watch group.

Other resources

The St. Petersburg Police Department provides free home security checks and antitheft devices to owners of high-theft vehicles. Contact Officer John Harris at (727) 893-7559 for information.

Burglary on rise in St. Petersburg 06/27/09 [Last modified: Saturday, June 27, 2009 9:27pm]

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