SHORELINE — It can take seconds, police say. If your keys or key fob are left in the car, Bingo. If it’s unlocked, forget about any valuables left in your vehicle, too.
A rash of car break-ins and thefts continue to plague Shoreline residents. This disquieting crime has affected the area for some three years and towns are reporting an uptick in the last year, with some seeing an alarming increase.
“Believe it or not — there are firearms, credit cards, electronic devices,” Branford Police Chief Jon Mulhern said about what’s left in these unlocked vehicles.
In Branford, car thefts have increased by 119 percent since last year, according to Mulhern.
He noted that for Jan. 1 to Oct. 1, 2019 there were 26 motor vehicle thefts. During the same period January to October for 2020, there were 57 motor vehicle thefts.
In Madison there have been 26 car thefts since January 2020; in Clinton, 140 car break-ins and 17 stolen vehicles this year, alone and in Guilford, from January to September 2020 there have been 13 auto thefts.
“It’s a pretty well-known fact with these groups that there’s really no consequence to your criminal actions,” said Clinton Police Chief Vincent DeMaio. “The courts have made it so that we can’t pursue them when they steal a car,”
“For property crimes we’re not allowed to pursue by statewide pursuit policy, we keep arresting the same individuals again and again and again and again,” DeMaio added.
The perpetrators work in groups of about six individuals who arrive in one or two cars and are dropped off in neighborhoods, according to Mulhern.
“Normally these vehicles are stolen,” Madison Police Sgt. Joseph Race said about the autos used to transport the offenders.
He talked about the people who are involved and the police’s inability to stem the tide.
“They’re juveniles, so that creates issues,” he said. “The juvenile justice system is not holding these individuals accountable.
“So, we have many we have tracked down that are repeat offenders and that’s what concerning, the officers are working very hard and these individuals are not being held accountable and they are just doing it over and over again,” he added. “The juvenile justice system needs reform.”
Race said while he is not a proponent of “putting kids in prison, there has to be some mechanism for accountability and there really isn’t one right now.”
Both Race and Guilford Police Chief Butch Hyatt point out that all cars stolen in their jurisdictions have had the keys in the car.
“These kids aren’t hotwiring, they don’t know how to hotwire, they don’t have to hotwire,” Race said. “If they pull enough doors, they’re going to find one that’s got the keys in it and that’s just a law of averages.”
And even more unfortunate, Mulhern noted that some residents have left their garage openers in their cars, enabling perpetrators to easily enter their homes.
In all Shoreline towns, every recovered car is fully processed, including fingerprints.
When police have recovered some of these cars they have found a cache of personal items, including wallets, purses, laptops, credit and debit cards and firearms, stolen from other autos.
This leads the police to believe that “they’re going through probably hundreds of cars,” said Race.
Many of the stolen vehicles are recovered.
“The majority of them in New Haven, but we have had some go to Hartford, Waterbury, Stamford, New London,” Race said.
Cars stolen from Branford have also been recovered in town and even as far as Westerly, R.I., Mulhern said.
Theresa Harris, who owns Lou’s Collision & Custom Paint in Old Saybrook with her husband, said her shop has worked on about 10 cars stolen from Madison, Clinton and Westbrook. They range from Hondas to Mercedes and are in bad shape when they arrive at her shop.
“They’re absolutely filthy and disgusting and the majority of the time there’s residue and remnants of marijuana and stolen goods still in them,” the Clinton resident said. “It’s awful.”
Harris recalls the damage to a Honda, taken from Clinton a couple of years ago.
“They destroyed the whole inside of the car,” she said. “Ripped the door right off the glove box and at some point in time it looked like somebody literally ran over the hood of the car and the roof of the car and went down the back.”
Mulhern and Hyatt both stress that some stolen vehicles have been directly involved in violent crimes.
“There have been instances where the cars that we’ve had stolen here have been involved in shooting and at least one homicide,” said Hyatt.
He added that there have been cases where car owners have attempted to thwart the theft.
“They come out and confront the people and they’ve been shot at from the vehicles,” he said.
Race warns that “whether or not they’re armed, I think they’re still dangerous. Some of them are armed, yes.”
Hyatt and Race both agree that home camera systems are helpful. While Mulhern said the strongest deterrent is to lock your cars.
“I wish everybody had one,” said Hyatt. “We can get some good evidence off of those with our regional intel sharing.”
Race explained home cameras capture the perpetrators in the act.
“Young individuals, generally, wearing hoodies,” said Race. “They run up, check a few doors, if they get into a car, they push the button, if it starts, they’re on their way. It’s that quick.”
He explained that from his department experience they are kids, as young as 14-years-old, which he finds concerning.
“If these people are taking cars, they don’t have the skills to drive and understand the repercussions of how they’re driving,” he added.
All the police chiefs agree that should a homeowner catch someone trying to break in or steal their car, they should not engage in any confrontation with the perpetrator and instead, turn on outdoor and security lights and call 911 and give the police a description.
“It’s a very preventable crime,” said Hyatt. “Lock your car and take your keys out of it.”
Even if the homeowner owns a gun, Mulhern stressed they should avoid confrontation.
“Nothing good is going to come from that.”
Both Hyatt and Race concur that their residents feel safe in their communities are not accustomed to a criminal element invading their safety.
“I think people find Guilford is a comfortable community where they feel fairly safe and leaving the keys in the car is probably something they’ve done for a long time,” Hyatt said.
“Even though this is a safe community, that’s exactly what draws the people that are looking to enter cars or steal cars — that’s why they’re drawn to a community like this,” he added.
Race echoes this.
“So, I appreciate that Madison is a very safe town and it still is even with this going on, but we still need to lock our cars, our houses, our sheds, our garages, everything, to prevent this sort of activity,” Race added.
This was definitely the case with Lynn, a Clinton resident who requested her last name not be printed.
“The knock came at 1:30 in the morning when the police were there,” she said.
“I was just so surprised that it happened,” she said upon learning her vehicle had been ransacked in January 2018.
For Erica Clough it has become so disconcerting that she has formed neighbor watch group to be on the lookout for suspicious activity.
“It does make us feeling safer just in knowing that we have the comradery of a neighbor saying, ‘Yes, I know, I feel the same way. We don’t want to feel unsafe either, so let’s all band together with the hope that having that comradery that you won’t feel as unsafe in your own neighborhood,” the Clinton resident said.
Police urge anyone who witnesses this activity to immediately contact their local police department. These individuals have engaged police in high speed chases and some have been caught in possession of firearms.
“There have been incidences where the cars that we’ve had stolen have been involved in shootings and at least one homicide,” Hyatt said.
DeMaio said this crime is “beyond frustrating” for everyone involved.
“The thing that I don’t like is that we’re all engaged in this practice of victim shaming,” he said.
“It’s the fault of the individual who came onto your property and stole your property,” he said, his voice rising as he spoke. “No one says that and that’s the part that frustrates me the most.
“Let’s put the responsibility where the responsibility lies, and the responsibility lies with these criminal actors who are coming and committing crimes, that’s where the responsibility lies,” he added. “It’s not the person’s fault that they forgot their keys in their cars, that their car should have been stolen.”