An innovative approach to apprehending residential burglars

In PoliceOne "First Person" essays, PoliceOne Members candidly share their own unique personal insights on issues confronting cops today, as well as opinions, observations, and advice on living life behind the thin blue line

Editor’s Note: This week’s PoliceOne First Person essay is from PoliceOne Member Travis Martinez, a Lieutenant who writes about "While You’re Away — RPD Electronic Home Surveillance Program" — a system that was put in place at the Redlands Police Department to deter thefts and track stolen goods through GPS. This is a platform from which individual officers can share their own personal insights on issues confronting cops today, as well as opinions, observations, and advice on living life behind the thin blue line. If you want to share your own perspective with other PoliceOne Members, send us an e-mail with your story.

By Lieutenant Travis Martinez
PoliceOne Member

Every week, thousands of Americans leave their homes to enjoy a vacation. Most vacationers take precautionary measures to protect their valuables in their house by installing alarms or surveillance cameras. Often, they will have neighbors or volunteers from the local law enforcement agency periodically check on their property.

Unfortunately, even when taking these safeguards, residents all too often return to discover that some criminal violated their personal space and stole some if not all of their prized possessions.

At a time when they are supposed to be relaxed and rejuvenated, these victims are now stressed trying to balance the return to normal everyday life with replacing possessions, dealing with insurance agencies, and fixing damage caused by residential burglars.

While You’re Away
In Redlands (Calif.), located 50 miles east of Los Angeles in the Inland Empire, the local police department has implemented a new program entitled, “While You’re Away — RPD Electronic Home Surveillance Program.”

The program helps address the problem of suspects preying on residents who are away on vacation.  For years, the Redlands Police Department (RPD) has conducted a vacation house check program that is similar to other vacation house check programs conducted at law enforcement agencies across the United States. Residents can request a volunteer unit to conduct a daily drive by of their residence to ensure the residence does not have any open doors or windows.

The program has proven to be in demand with residents consistently signed up to partake in the security check. Unfortunately, the volunteer program only allows a law enforcement presence at the residence for approximately five minutes a day. Despite offering such a voluntary service, RPD has experienced a nearly 16 percent increase in residential burglary between January and July 2013 as compared to the same time period in 2012. Some of those burglaries occurred at residences whose owners were away on vacation.

Beginning in September 2013, residents who are planning a vacation can now sign up via the RPD internet homepage for the “While You’re Away” program. Before leaving for any extended period of time, residents can arrange to check out a GPS tracking device that can be hidden on items of value that are particularly attractive to burglars such as home electronics, safes, or jewelry boxes. If the residents do not feel comfortable attaching the device, they can opt to pick up a laptop computer from the police department that has a GPS device pre-installed in it.

The resident simply leaves the laptop in a location the suspect will likely see. The motion sensitive device is activated once the resident leaves on vacation through a hibernation feature. Any movement of the device will set off a signal that sends a text message to both the resident and the police. Officers can then use Internet tracking software to quickly locate the stolen property and apprehend the thief.

Easing the Fear of Being Burglarized
RPD has been using the GPS devices manufactured by 3SI Security Systems for over two years to address crime trends in the community. With 68 arrests of career criminals for such crimes as armed robbery, vehicle burglary, metal theft, bike theft, laptop theft, copper wire theft, commercial burglary, fire hydrant theft, construction site theft, and tire theft, RPD has found a low cost method to address crime trends as they arise. With the recent spike in residential burglary, the RPD has turned to the same type of GPS devices to help address the burglary problem. The devices offer the residents the opportunity to participate in a program that will help ease the fear of being burglarized while they are away.

Using asset forfeiture money, RPD purchased tracking devices at a cost of only $450 each with a $30 a month cell phone service, mapping, and 24/7 technical support fee per device. Residents apply for the program by completing two online applications and submitting a $200 fully refundable deposit. There is no cost to participate in the program. However, residents can make a monetary donation that will be applied to help sustain the program. If enough money can be raised, RPD will purchase more devices to help the residents protect themselves.

The idea for the program was contrived one afternoon when a resident discovered his neighbor’s house broken into while the neighbor was in the middle of a two week Hawaiian vacation. During a check of the exterior, the neighbor discovered a broken window where somebody had gained access and ransacked the residence. Of greatest concern was the fact that the suspects had moved several home electronics — including the newly-purchased 60-inch flat screen television —to the entryway. Officers believed the suspects might return to steal this property.

Police were able to make phone contact with the homeowner who was very distraught and shared the same concern of the burglars returning to steal the rest of the property that had been lined up by the front door. The resident was not comfortable with simply having periodic checks conducted by the volunteers or the housesitter and felt forced to cut his family vacation short because of the burglary.

With the cost of changing flights and the expense of non-refundable hotel fees, the costs of the burglary to the resident was going to grow. Instead, RPD officers offered to discreetly attach a GPS tracker to the back of the television. The technology was not going to prevent the suspects from returning, but if that television moved so much as a foot, officers would immediately know about it and be able to accurately track its movement. Armed with this knowledge, the resident opted to stay in Hawaii with his family and enjoy the remaining week of his vacation. Although the suspects never returned, the resident was grateful their local police department had the capability of electronically protecting his valuables.

Pioneering the GPS Tactic
RPD was one of the very first law enforcement agencies nationwide to deploy the GPS devices in a manner to address property crime issues. With the success of the GPS tracking program at RPD (67 arrests as of September 2013), several surrounding police agencies have purchased the same type of device and began conducting their own electronic stakeouts. To illustrate the impact the technology has had on apprehending criminals, research conducted as part of a POST Command College project found that 38 out of the first 44 arrests were adults. Each person arrested had a criminal record with the exception of one female who was accompanied by her career-criminal boyfriend at the time of the crime.

The 38 people had been previously arrested a total of 561 times for an average of 14.2 arrests per individual. Thirty four percent of the 38 people arrested were on some form of supervised early release. Six of the subjects had stolen property in their possession from other thefts. Fourteen of the subjects had warrants out for their arrest. These numbers demonstrate that RPD’s arrests not only solved the current crime, but likely prevented numerous others by taking recidivists who drive crime rates up off the streets.

Innovative projects such as the GPS trackers have been solid force multipliers for RPD and will most certainly serve as an example for other police agencies. At a time when many police agencies have been forced to cutback on proactive measures such as police surveillances, RPD has figured out a way to conduct 24/7 surveillance at a cost of $1 a day.

As other agencies search for new and innovative ways to protect the community and preserve the quality of life at a time when more and more prisoners are being released early due to the mandates of prison realignment, the use of the GPS tracking device system will no doubt spread throughout the law enforcement community.

The residents of Redlands can be assured that RPD is on the cutting edge of providing innovative policing to their community. RPD is creating a paradigm shift in how modern policing practices can address emerging crime trends. The results speak for themselves: 68 arrests of career criminals in 34 months. Innovative uses of GPS technology has allowed RPD to implement a new community policing program that will help residents protect their homes “While You’re Away.” 

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