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Vehicle Burglary: A Problem Every Community Experiences

body camera on officer while he writes a ticketThe February 2014 issue of the COPS Office Community Policing Dispatch contained an article discussing how the Redlands (California) Police Department (RPD) is utilizing GPS technology to provide residents a method of keeping their valuables safe while they are away from home. Read more about the program at “While You’re Away.” The following is the fourth article in a series describing how RPD is using GPS trackers to enhance the department’s community policing efforts and promote police legitimacy.

As children, most people learn there is an inherent risk to leaving valuables inside a vehicle. Parents ingrain in their children the idea that they must hide their electronics and other valuable property under the seat or face the possibility of losing them to a thief. Almost every community considers vehicle burglary to be a problem. From the local fitness center parking lot to the shopping mall to their own neighborhoods, residents often fear leaving their valuables in their secured vehicles, even outside their house. Businesses will place signs warning people of theft problems and some will incur the added expense of hiring security guards to patrol the area, but the thieves know security guards cannot possibly maintain a constant eye on every car. Seldom do such efforts prevent thefts from occurring altogether.

There is now a new strategy that police departments across the nation are using to apprehend vehicle burglary suspects. In January 2011, the Redlands (California) Police Department was experiencing a significant increase in the number of vehicle burglaries, specifically at a popular fitness center’s parking lot. After researching different technologies on the market that could be used to address the problem, RPD opted to use a highly effective yet very affordable GPS tracking device that financial institutions were using to protect their assets. Put simply, RPD began deploying “bait” vehicles at locations around town that were prone to vehicle burglaries. Inside the locked car, officers place a non-functioning laptop computer on the front passenger seat. A small GPS device that can be deployed for up to 20 months without a recharge is hidden discreetly inside the laptop. Often, a blanket is used to partially cover the laptop and a shopping bag is placed on the dashboard to attract attention to the vehicle. Police then park the vehicle at “hot spot” locations identified by crime analysis. When a thief smashes the window and moves the laptop, the movement causes the GPS device to activate and send alert messages directly to the dispatch center and officers’ smartphones. Using the Internet, dispatchers can then pull up a map displaying the direction and speed of travel of the GPS device and direct officers to its location. With six-second updates, officers can often pinpoint the exact location of the device within a few minutes. For those instances where they find that the device has entered a building, parking structure, or some other location that prevents officers from locating it using GPS coordinates, officers can use a handheld radio frequency beacon to pinpoint its exact location. To date, RPD has made 137 arrests in just under four years of deploying the devices to address crime trends in the area.

After experiencing immediate success at the fitness center parking lot, the concept of using GPS tracking devices to address vehicle burglary within the city limits has become a permanent strategy to apprehend those that are responsible for driving up the vehicle burglary crime rate in Redlands. Each week, the crime analyst at RPD analyzes various statistics and forecasts where vehicle burglars will strike next. Community policing officers will then approach the businesses or residents in the area to obtain permission to deploy the bait car in their parking lot or in front of their residence—in essence, forming a partnership to help stop criminals. Some residents have even offered to periodically wash the cars in order to keep them attractive to suspects. RPD has forged a partnership with a local mobile auto glass repair business to fix any window for $100 when a window is broken. Officers simply return the car to the police department parking lot, and the company will fix the window including cleaning up the mess of the glass left behind. The concept of using GPS tracking devices to address the crime of vehicle burglary has expanded to other police departments as well. After meeting with the lieutenant in charge of the GPS tracker program at RPD, Sergeant Greg White of the Carlsbad (California) Police Department implemented a similar program to combat the increase in vehicle burglaries along the coastal access points in the beach town. In just under two years of deploying the GPS devices at “hot spots” in Carlsbad, Sgt. White has indicated the vehicle burglary crime rate decreased about 60% between November 2013 and February 2014 as compared to the same time period the previous four years. In a recent conversation discussing the effectiveness of the Carlsbad program, Sgt. White stated, “The trackers give police departments the tool necessary to conduct electronic surveillances of targeted areas without incurring the heavy costs associated with traditional types of police surveillance. The trackers put law enforcement officers into direct contact with those committing vehicle burglaries immediately after they commit the crime.”

body camera on officer while he writes a ticketPolice departments deploying the GPS tracking concept often attempt to keep this strategy confidential so as not to educate the criminals they are trying to catch. However, as more and more law enforcement agencies turn to GPS tracking devices to address vehicle burglaries in their community, word in the criminal community will likely spread that certain law enforcement agencies are being proactive in solving vehicle burglary crime. In both Redlands and Carlsbad, the vehicle burglary crime rate has been decreasing even at a time when the same type of crime has increased in other jurisdictions. RPD has had two repeat arrests of individuals by using the GPS tracker; however, in both cases, each suspect was arrested for committing different types of crime at different times. On one occasion, the subject was arrested for vehicle burglary, and only nine months later he was arrested for bicycle theft. RPD has never had a repeat arrest where the suspect was rearrested for committing the same type of crime. This statistic supports the idea that criminals may pass on committing crimes in Redlands and prey on other cities that have yet to adopt the same strategy. If this is the case, adopting GPS technology may prove to help accomplish the long-term goal of reducing crime. In Redlands’ case, the community will experience less vehicle burglary, which in turn will give those that live in Redlands and those that patronize the businesses in the city an added sense of security.

GPS devices have proven to be a valuable tool and will likely expand as other police agencies search for strategies to address vehicle burglary. The devices have enhanced community policing programs as police departments partner with members of the community during GPS deployments. The tables have now turned on vehicle burglars. No longer will police departments sit idle as thieves prey on the community. Authorities now have the means to efficiently and effectively combat this longtime criminal problem.

Next Month: Fighting Tire Theft

Learn more about the Redlands Police Department’s GPS electronic stakeout program. Also see COPS Office resources “Thefts of and from Cars on Residential Streets and Driveways” and “Thefts of and from Autos in Parking Facilities.”

Lt Travis Martinez is the Special Operations Bureau Lieutenant of the Redlands Police Department and can be contacted at

Travis Martinez
Special Operations Bureau Lieutenant
Redlands Police Department

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COPS Office 20th Anniversary | Youth Police Academy | Shining a Light on Hidden Disabilities | No Officers Lost to Suicide | Vehicle Burglary