Last year, the city of Mountain View reported the highest number of thefts from vehicles in at least a decade. This year is much worse -- so far in 2019, the number of auto burglary cases is likely to surpass last year total in just a few weeks.
The problem isn't unique to Mountain View, with the neighboring cities of Sunnyvale and Palo Alto also showing a stark increase in smash-and-grab thefts. Police officials say they are trying to suppress the growing problem, but say the cases are often remarkably difficult to investigate and prosecute.
As of July 11, the Mountain View Police Department reported 562 cases of auto burglary, about 86% higher than around the same time last year. And 2018 was already an outlier, with a grand total of 622 reported auto burglaries, higher than every year going back to 2010. What's getting stolen is also more valuable: Auto burglaries in which personal belongings worth more than $400 were stolen increased 30% in 2018.
Thieves primarily target downtown Mountain View, movie theaters and other commercial areas, though the numbers fluctuate from one month to the next. The Century Cinema 16 in North Bayshore was a hot spot for reported burglaries in the winter months, but saw a precipitous decline in thefts starting in April. The new Showplace Icon Theatres was quickly targeted and has been the site of 19 burglaries since May, according to the website CrimeReports.
Downtown Mountain View's street parking and public parking lots have taken the brunt of the increase, with 65 auto burglaries cases reported on and adjacent to Bryant Street alone. The In-N-Out Burger parking lot on North Rengstorff Avenue near Highway 101, which had held the infamous title of most-burglarized spot in the city, has 41 reported thefts from vehicles so far this year.
Burglaries have spiked in Palo Alto, with 488 reported cases so far this year, according to Palo Alto Police Department officials, roughly double what was reported around the same time in 2018. Sunnyvale's online "Community Crime Map" shows a 67% increase in auto burglary cases through early July compared to last year.
In an email, Mountain View Police Chief Max Bosel told the Voice that the department is taking several steps to control the growing problem, including a mix of surveillance, cross-agency investigations and public information and crime prevention tips. The Park Smart campaign, launched in March, encourages residents to be vigilant when parking at shopping centers, restaurants, movie theaters and parking garages, and to take all valuable belongings out of the vehicle.
The department is also analyzing crime trends, Bosel said, and deploying foot and bicycle patrols in areas that could benefit from a visible police presence.
But actually clearing the cases -- that is, arresting someone and charging them with a crime -- is difficult for law enforcement agencies. FBI statistics show that for cities of Mountain View's size, the clearance rate for burglaries ranges from 11.3% to 14.9% depending on the nature of the theft, significantly lower than the clearance rates of all types of rape, robbery and aggravated assault.
Auto burglaries typically happen fast, with thieves targeting multiple vehicles in a matter of minutes without being seen by witnesses, Bosel said. There is often no evidence left behind to prove someone committed a crime, and when they are caught in the act, it often involves one or more suspects fleeing in a vehicle at high speeds.
In a lengthy investigation that led to the arrest of three suspected auto burglars last month, detectives found the alleged thieves had used a rotation of rental cars and false license plates in order to throw off police pursuing the case. Using corroborating evidence from several law enforcement agencies, the Mountain View Police Department tracked down and arrested the three men in connection with 11 auto burglaries in Mountain View, Sunnyvale, Santa Clara and San Jose.
"Prosecuting a defendant requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Unless caught in the act, auto burglary is difficult to prove," Bosel said. "That doesn't mean we won't make every effort to bring some justice to those who have been impacted by this."
Although Mountain View and nearby cities are grappling with a rise in auto burglaries, other cities have seen a decline. San Francisco, which had a peak of 31,000 thefts from motor vehicles in 2017, saw a decrease in 2018 that has continued into 2019. As of the end of May, the city had 9,174 thefts, a 13% decrease compared with the same time in 2018.
On a per-capita basis, however, San Francisco remains heads and shoulders above Mountain View. Through May of this year, San Francisco averaged nearly 11 auto burglaries per 1,000 residents, compared with 5.8 in Mountain View.
Though the root cause of the increase in property crime remains a hotly debated topic, law enforcement agencies frequently cite criminal justice reform bills and voter initiatives -- specifically Proposition 47, Proposition 57 and AB 109 -- which have reduced the sentences for low-level drug and theft crimes in order to bring down the prison population in the state of California.
An analysis by the Los Angeles Times and the Marshall Project found that crime did increase in 2012, the year immediately following AB 109, and again in 2015, the year following the passage of Proposition 47. In both cases, the media outlet reported increases in statewide property crimes, particularly theft from motor vehicles. A voter initiative which has qualified for the 2020 ballot proposes rolling back the reforms imposed by Proposition 47 and Proposition 57.
A report released in June last year by the Public Policy Institute of California found some evidence that Proposition 47 has contributed to a roughly 9% increase in larceny thefts, driven mostly by thefts from motor vehicles. The study found no evidence that violent crime increased as a result of Proposition 47.
While Bosel said he would not speak for other law enforcement agencies, he said state and regionwide sentiment is that criminal justice reform in recent years has made it more difficult to deter property crimes, particularly the lack of meaningful consequences criminals face if arrested for a theft.
"Repeat offenders and even hardened criminals are not deterred to commit these crimes," Bosel said. "Arrested suspects have told officers, 'Property crime, do no time.'"