News

Police grapple with huge rise in auto burglaries

Mountain View and neighboring cities see rapid spike in reported thefts

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.'"

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Comments

17 people like this
Posted by Data data???
a resident of St. Francis Acres
on Jul 18, 2019 at 2:39 pm

Also, it is also well known that the numbers quoted are actually lower than the actual number of thefts / burglaries. For all those that report their loss to the police there are still a number of people who do not take the time to report the crimes to police since they feel police are not going to be doing anything and don’t even come out to speak to them about being a victim. I am one of them. My vehicle was broken into and they stole a bag with emergency supplies and clothing. When I called Mountain View Police Department before I could even tell them anything they told me to report the crime online. At least give me the option. Poor customer service. But this is probably the normal elsewhere. Don’t the cops want to come out and see if there are any cameras near by or see if anyone saw anything?

Note to the editor: Your verification code system needs improvement. On many devices you can not make a lowercase letter for the first letter in the code. Took several times to push a comment through.


16 people like this
Posted by Stop leaving things in cars
a resident of Shoreline West
on Jul 18, 2019 at 6:59 pm

Pretty simple guys. Half the issue is that these thieves know you leave your stuff in there. Stop it! How many times do you have to be told to take your valuables with you?


18 people like this
Posted by ken
a resident of Rengstorff Park
on Jul 18, 2019 at 9:51 pm

Can we just have the police setup bait cars to get these guys off the street. Setup a Tesla with a backpack in the bag. Thief gets to pay for car damage + fine. Let's get this going.


17 people like this
Posted by Neighbor
a resident of another community
on Jul 19, 2019 at 12:15 am

Well, California politicians reduced the charges and penalties for this crime. Criminals are emboldened and police don’t have time to bother investigating. It doesn’t matter one whit whether you have anything in your car or not. California politicians are nowadays prioritizing the “rights” of criminals over citizens and legal residents, members of the public who are increasingly victimized by musguided policies and laws. Way to go, wrecking California.


13 people like this
Posted by Robyn
a resident of another community
on Jul 19, 2019 at 1:25 am

The police do not prevent crime. They react to it.
We must accept responsibility for protecting ourselves and our property.
With the increase in population we should anticipate an increase in crime.


10 people like this
Posted by Bummed
a resident of Shoreline West
on Jul 19, 2019 at 4:28 am

My car was broken into as well. I had nothing in it and was just going to lunch at In-n-Out. Like “Data Data” said I didn’t bother to report it either when I was told by the woman answering phones at the police that they don’t take those reports in person and stressed that I needed to report it online. Never-mind then.


10 people like this
Posted by PA Resident
a resident of another community
on Jul 19, 2019 at 7:28 am

The problem is no longer what you leave in sight, particularly if you drive a Tesla. The thieves are breaking window to open trunk to see what has been left.

When I was a victim of this, in Mountain View, I had left nothing in the car and the only thing in the trunk was a couple of empty grocery bags. MVPD told me that thieve break in to cars in the offchance that something worth stealing might be there in the trunk.


13 people like this
Posted by Less stress
a resident of Cuesta Park
on Jul 19, 2019 at 1:41 pm


I have lived in Mountain View for over 26 years now, but pretty much stopped going to downtown Mountain View over a year ago, and instead regularly patronize downtown Los Altos...where there is easy parking, no worries about smash and grab crime, and plenty of good restaurants & nice shops to patronize. The post office there is a breeze as well.

Sadly, it’s just not worth the added stress to deal with downtown Mountain View anymore.




10 people like this
Posted by Interesting
a resident of another community
on Jul 19, 2019 at 2:26 pm

Re the post I had my car smash/grabbed 2x in Los Altos. Once outside the Los Altos grill and in a lot behind Pete's on State street.

I think feeling safe is a perception. I feel fine in MV. I've never had a single issue in MV and go to the DT area frequently, day and night.
It's based on one's individual experiences


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