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Unsolved property crimes increasing in Columbia

Sunday, July 6, 2008 | 4:30 p.m. CDT; updated 3:25 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

COLUMBIA — Sometime in January, toward the end of winter break, a still-unidentified person removed an air-conditioning unit and crawled through the window of Tim Hoffman’s first-floor, four-bedroom apartment near Mark Twain Hall, an MU residence hall. The burglar ransacked Hoffman’s room and took a guitar, a high-definition TV, hundreds of CDs and various other items. They have yet to be recovered.

“It did take a little time to get past that,” Hoffman said. “It stuck for a little while and was not a good feeling. Unsafe and unfair, really.”

MORE INFORMATION

BY THE NUMBERS

— In Columbia, from March 2006 through March 2007, there were 572 total burglaries reported with a sum of $839,711 worth of property stolen. During this time, 99 burglary-related arrests were made, for a clearance rate of 17.30 percent. — In Columbia, from April 2007 through April 2008, there were 735 total burglaries reported with a grand total of $1,215,563 worth of property stolen. During this time, 116 burglary-related arrests were made, for a clearance rate of 15.78 percent. — From two years ago to one year ago in Columbia, there was an increase in both the total number of burglaries reported (+163) and in total dollars worth of property stolen (+$375,852), while the clearance rate dropped by 1.52 percent. — In Boone County, from March 2006 through March 2007, there were 836 total burglaries reported with a total of $1,127,994 worth of property stolen. During this time, 153 burglary-related arrests were made, for a clearance rate of 18.30 percent. — In Boone County, from April 2007 through April 2008, there were 1,037 total burglaries reported with $1,838,144 worth of property stolen. During this time, 167 arrests burglary-related arrests were made, for a clearance rate of 16.10 percent. — From two years ago to one year ago in Boone County, there was an increase in both the total number of burglaries reported (+201) and in total dollars worth of property stolen (+$710,150), while the clearance rate dropped 2.2 percent. SOURCE: All statistics courtesy of Missouri State Highway Patrol Statistical Analysis Center’s Uniform Crime Reporting Statistical Analysis Web site

TIPS FOR PREVENTION

— Lock all doors and windows. — Make it look like someone’s home. Put automatic timers on lights and appliances and set them so that they will turn on and off at random times. — Leave shades and blinds the way you normally would. — If you’re going on vacation, arrange for a neighbor or friend to pick up mail, newspapers and any other packages. Turn your telephone ringer down low or off, and do not leave your lights on all day. — Ask a trusted friend or neighbor to watch over your property while you are gone and leave emergency contact information with them. — Leave a normal message on your answering machine and avoid discussing your vacation plans in public. — Contact the Columbia Police Department at 442-6131 or 874-7652 and request a vacation “watch in passing.” Officers will be made aware that you are not home and will drive by the area more frequently. SOURCE: The Columbia Police Department (gocolumbiamo.com/ Police/vac-crime_tips.php)

RENTER'S INSURANCE

— Students living in the dorms aren’t necessarily in a better position. According to The MU Tiger Guide, MU’s official student handbook for campus, “Residential Life does not assume responsibility for personal items,” and “each student is encouraged to obtain personal property or renter’s insurance.” — Agents at State Farm, Allstate, Shelter, and Naught-Naught insurance companies in Columbia all confirmed that their agencies – like most other agencies in the area – offer renter’s insurance. All of them indicated that the rates would vary depending on the dwelling or the coverage, but all agreed that the cost is generally cheap at every agency.


Hoffman’s experience as a victim of an unsolved property crime is becoming increasingly common in Columbia.

The total number of burglaries and the total value stolen are on the rise while the clearance rate — or percentage of burglaries solved — is declining.

Columbia Police Detective Vance Pitman was quick to point out, however, that burglaries aren’t always considered cleared even when police are confident they have the suspect in custody.

“If I find a guy and he’s got five different things stolen from the same burglary, but there were eight things stolen from that burglary, and he’s not confessing and I can’t put him there at the scene, the only case I can prove is that he’s receiving stolen property,” Pitman said. “I mean, I’ve solved it. I know he did it. But according to UCR, that burglary has not been cleared.”

While the clearance rate may or may not be an accurate measure of burglaries solved, the increased frequency of burglaries is undeniable.

Pitman said that there are usually at least 500 burglaries in Columbia every year, and he expects there will be more than 600 this year. He attributes spikes like this to “cycles,” reasoning that perhaps people in jail for burglary are being released and are back to their old ways.

“A burglar is not going to do just one burglary in all of his life,” Pitman said.

This current cycle is something that MU students living in off-campus apartments — such as Hoffman — have been unable to avoid. In fact, quite a few of them are suffering the impact.

MU senior Dustin Miller was out for the evening on December 9, 2007 when someone kicked down the front door to his Bearfield residence and stole laptops and chargers belonging to him and his roommate. None of the items have been recovered. Miller said his house was one of two or three in the neighborhood burglarized that night, with another two or three falling victim the following evening.

“They wanted the quick cash stuff,” Miller said.

Kevin Gehl, a senior at MU, and his roommates — who have all been living in different states this summer — learned that their first-floor apartment at Campus Lodge was burglarized at the beginning of June.

“We were actually surprised it didn’t happen earlier, because we had so many friends who got hit over Christmas break,” Gehl said.

Gehl said a Campus Lodge employee called his roommate to say that someone had pried open their back door and walked out with the 42-inch Plasma TV that was provided by the complex last fall. Gehl is unsure about who will be responsible for the loss — which he estimates to be worth $2,000 — but feels confident that being in town would have stopped it from happening.

“I think it was an easy target,” Gehl said. “If you case that place for two days, you notice that there isn’t a light on.”

The fact that none of these victims were home at the time of the respective incidents is no coincidence, according to Pitman.

“In most cases, there are no witnesses,” Pitman said. “If you don’t have a witness and you can’t trace property back, it’s very difficult to solve the burglary. We could solve more burglaries if everybody recorded serial numbers.”

Even when police are provided with serial numbers or potential witnesses, cases such as Hoffman’s or Miller’s can remain unsolved.

“I had serial numbers on the guitar and the TV, and I reported those to the police, but nothing was found,” Hoffman said. “Whoever did it got away with it.”

Miller said that on the night he was burglarized, his neighbors called police after watching a man run around and pound on doors and windows. Officers talked to the individual, but didn’t arrest him because he had committed no crime at that point.

Miller was satisfied with the officer response on the night of the incident.

“The officer tried to take some fingerprints, but there wasn’t really much he could do,” Miller said.

It wouldn’t be far-fetched for one arrest to solve all three of these cases and more. Because some burglars are what Pitman called “professionals,” the capture of a single suspect can sometimes lead to the clearance of multiple cases.

“I had one guy that admitted to 44 burglaries all by himself,” Pitman said. “We had him for one, I asked how many others he’d done, he said ‘about 50.’ We went through and were able to match 44 of them to the information he told us.”

Last Thursday, police arrested a 15-year-old they believe is responsible for approximately 15 burglaries in south Columbia between June 13 and July 3. The beat officer arranged a stakeout in the affected neighborhoods after noticing a pattern in the burglaries based on the time of day, the location and the method of operation, according to a police news release. Police believe houses on Commercial Drive, Tessa Way, Betty Jean Drive, Carrieridge Drive, Old Plank Road and Dad’s Way were impacted. Some of the stolen property was recovered.

But the big break is uncommon, and Pitman said there’s a better approach: “It takes a whole lot more time to solve a burglary than it does to prevent one in the first place.”


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