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Cottage Grove police use crime analysis to break down vehicle break-ins

When police questioned a suspected thief last year, he admitted to looking for cars to break into during an early morning blitz through a Cottage Grove neighborhood.

There was no actual breaking involved, however, as the man said he and his accomplice brother targeted unlocked vehicles. The man later pleaded guilty to theft and his brother was sentenced for burglary.

Their case illustrates the findings of a recent crime analysis project in Cottage Grove. A police department review of all reported vehicle break-ins in 2013 found that a majority involved unlocked vehicles, and nearly half the vehicles hit by thieves were parked in residential driveways.

“The takeaway is lock your vehicle in your driveway. Secure it,” said Scott Eggerth, a crime analysis intern who compiled the data.

Advising to lock doors and not keep valuables in plain view seems obvious, but police find that many break-in victims think it’s better not to lock doors.

“There’s this myth out there that if they keep it unlocked they’re not going to break in,” said Sgt. Randy McAlister of Cottage Grove’s investigations division.

Last year’s data debunks that myth:

-- 55 percent of the 122 vehicles affected by break-ins were unlocked or unsecured

-- 47 percent of the vehicles were in driveways and another 18 percent were in parking lots

-- Only 9 percent of all break-ins involved broken windows, but 60 percent of break-ins that occurred in parking lots involved damaged windows

-- There were only two vehicles that were parked in driveways and had windows broken to gain entry

-- The peak time for vehicle break-ins was 3 a.m. to 5 a.m.

-- Summer and fall saw more break-ins. The highest months were May (20),  August and September (13 each) and November (15)

-- Break-ins were spread throughout the week with no particular day seeing increased activity

A criminal justice student who is interning with the Cottage Grove Police Department, Eggerth used his crime analysis skills to document all 112 reported vehicle break-ins last year.

“It’s truly a sore spot for the citizens,” he said of the property crime. “They are affected by it.”

Cash, loose change, electronic devices, purses and other personal items often are reported missing when a vehicle is broken into.

This is the first time Cottage Grove police have used crime analysis, McAlister said. The aging Washington County law enforcement computer systems used by police departments do not allow for automated analysis.

“You can get all thefts as a total, but you can’t break it down any more than that,” he said.

A long-discussed new computer system will include analysis capabilities but until then the work is akin to time-consuming data entry. Still, Eggerth said he enjoys the work. He has a certificate in crime analysis and is working toward a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice at Century College in Maplewood.

McAlister’s interest in crime analysis and how it could be applied in Cottage Grove was piqued when he took a class at Century College. He asked the instructor to recommend a student who could work as a police intern. Eggerth got the part-time position last fall and plans to work through May.

In addition to compiling the data, Eggerth mapped the location of all of the break-ins. While there were thefts throughout the city, many thefts happened in densely populated neighborhoods. Areas with multiple thefts included east of Jamaica and south of 70th Street, multi-unit developments north of 80th street near Hinton Avenue, and housing near Jamaica Avenue and East Point Douglas Road.

Thieves often target older developments where there might be older trees and less street lighting, providing more shaded areas to hide, McAlister said.

The theft location maps are illustrative and can help police when they present a case to a prosecutor who will decide whether to charge a suspect. Also, the graphics can help prosecutors when they take a case to jury, McAlister said.

Traditionally, theft-from-vehicle cases have one of the lowest closure rates because you often have to catch a suspect in the act or track down suspects through pawned items, McAlister said.

Eggerth has continued tracking vehicle theft data into 2014 and has expanded his analysis to include thefts from businesses this year.

McAlister said the research is valuable because it can identify crime trends or highlight similarities between multiple reports that otherwise may not have been linked. If they can be linked, it is easier to assign an investigator to the case. An investigator then could begin to look at possible suspects in a neighborhood and other geographic profiling.

“There’s a huge value in it,” McAlister said of crime analysis. “They can help you police smarter.”

Scott Wente

Scott Wente has been editor at the South Washington County Bulletin since 2011. He worked as a reporter at other Forum Communications newspapers from 2003 to 2011.

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