Pleasanton Weekly

Cover Story - September 10, 2010

Take your own bite out of crime

Beefing up home security is often simple and inexpensive

by Glenn Wohltmann

Not too long ago, Pleasanton was the kind of place one could leave the doors unlocked without worries about thefts.

No more. Crime isn't rampant here by any means, but home burglaries have gotten common enough that they're not big news anymore.

There are some ways that can reduce the risk of a home burglary, and most of them are neither hard nor expensive.

Officer Shannon Revel-Whitaker of the Pleasanton Police Department's Crime Prevention Unit said there are three aspects to a crime, known as "the triangle of crime." The three sides to the triangle are the victim, the suspect and the opportunity.

"You can't control the suspect and you can't control being a victim, but you can control the opportunity," Revel-Whitaker said. "That's important, giving people power."

The crime prevention unit makes house calls, and can help homeowners make the places they live harder to get into, what Revel-Whitaker described as "target hardening."

On a recent visit to a Pleasanton home, Revel-Whitaker and her partner, Officer Ken McNeill, pointed out a number of problems, and some simple fixes. Often a quick look around before leaving can be a help.

On this visit, for example, both back doors had been left unlocked. Two upper windows were also open, and McNeill pointed to objects nearby that could easily be stacked to provide an entry to a would-be burglar.

In fact, McNeill and Revel-Whitaker noticed a couple of problems before getting out of their car. The house number wasn't immediately visible, which could delay emergency workers. And a large bush near the front corner of the house could provide a hiding place for a criminal.

To minimize that, "trees should be trimmed up, and bushes should be trimmed down," Revel-Whitaker said.

The back yard of the home is surrounded by a privacy fence, which can provide privacy for a burglar, too, they pointed out. Gates on both sides were easily opened, requiring just a reach over to pop the latch -- something that could be fixed by a padlock.

This home also had items stored outside, including bicycles, which recently have become attractive targets for thieves. McNeill suggested that items left outside be locked.

While there was no visible sign of an alarm, the No. 1 deterrent to break-ins, this home did have the No. 2 deterrent, a dog.

"Believe it or not, it doesn't matter the breed or the size," Revel-Whitaker said.

McNeil said it doesn't matter if a dog is friendly or not: Most burglars won't risk breaking in to find out. He added that even if a homeowner doesn't have or want a dog, there's nothing that says a "beware of dog" sign can't be posted.

Revel-Whitaker added that there are also motion sensor alarms that trigger a recording of a barking dog.

Some things were impossible to check, such as whether the lighting is enough to cover the entire front of the house or whether the screws that hold the latch plate in the door are long enough. Those screws should be at least an inch long.

There was also no way to tell if the deadbolt had been properly installed. Police recommend a deadbolt that runs at least an inch into the door jamb and is at least 40 inches from glass, to keep someone from reaching in and turning the latch. If that deadbolt is closer than 40 inches, police recommend installing one that requires keys both inside and out.

This house had no sliding glass door, which pose some unique problems. While the use of a dowel to keep doors from opening is common, Revel-Whitaker said they need to be the proper size or a thief can bump it out of the frame. Also, like most sliding doors, they can be jimmied up and off the track, even if they're locked with the hook latch that comes on most doors; Revel-Whitaker suggested installing a screw at the top of the door so it can't be pried off its track.

There were a number of things these homeowners had done right. No valuables were in sight of a window where they could be taken in a grab-and-go theft, where the key is speed and not stealth. Revel-Whitaker said laptops and other items that can easily be taken should be kept away from windows, or the windows should have the shades drawn. The garage doors -- often an open invitation for thieves -- were closed tight.

The house also didn't have a hidden key, or at least not one that could easily be found. Beneath doormats, in flower pots and on a door jamb are all common places for burglars to look for keys.

"A lot of thefts are crimes of opportunity," Revel-Whitaker said. "The goal is to take away that opportunity."

The shades were pulled, which McNeill said could be either good or bad, depending on how the shades are kept when someone's home. He said, however, especially when taking a trip, it's important not to shut all the shades to make the house feel shut down.

While alarms are the biggest deterrent to crime, McNeil said those alarms don't have to be expensive. He said something as inexpensive as one that makes a loud noise when a connection is broken can be effective at running off a would-be thief.

Revel-Whitaker said the main problem with many alarm systems is that people don't use them.

"You get caught up in the everyday," she said.

Pleasanton police do home security inspections, but Revel-Whitaker said it's easy to spot problems.

"Look at your home though a burglar's eyes, day and night, or maybe trade with a neighbor -- you look at his house and have him look at yours," she suggested.

Revel-Whitaker also said one of the best things about Pleasanton is that people in a neighborhood are at home different times of the day and can watch out for each other. That proved true on the home visit. Despite arriving in a police car and the fact that one of the officers was in uniform, a neighbor came out and asked questions.

People watching out for each other is also a good way to fight crime, as in a recent incident where an alert neighbor called Pleasanton police after seeing a suspicious car and people peering in windows and trying doors. That led to the arrest of two people from Oakland.

Revel-Whitaker said people shouldn't hesitate to call police. She said people often hesitate thinking their call will bother them, or that what they think is suspicious may not warrant a police visit. Revel-Whitaker also said people shouldn't hesitate to call the city if a street light goes out.

She recommends Neighborhood Watch, and pointed out that, like providing free home security visits, police will work with new groups.

"We don't necessarily know what's normal in your neighborhood, but you know what's not right," McNeill said.

There are some things that can be done to protect property even if a burglar gets inside.

Revel-Whitaker said valuables, especially items like jewelry, should be kept in a safe. McNeill said items like laptops should be engraved with a driver's license number, which will follow a person even after a change of address, so that if an item is recovered 10 years later, the owner can still be located. Police have an engraver they lend out.

McNeill said most burglaries are drug related, with thieves taking things that can easily be sold. Sometimes, he said, they'll be sold to someone cheaply who will then turn around and sell them on craigslist or eBay.

Homes not far from a freeway off-ramp are frequently targets for thieves from outside the area, but Revel-Whitaker said that's not always the case.

"We have a significant amount of crime even from people in town," she said. "Crime comes from human beings and human beings are everywhere."

Even with precautions, Revel-Whitaker said there's no way to be entirely safe.

"You can put up every barrier in the world, but sometimes bad things happen to good people," she said.

No one wants to live in Fort Knox, she added.

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