Thefts from vehicles continue to be a problem in Harford County and the Sheriff's Office says that, in many cases, keeping your possessions from being stolen by heroin addicts is as simple as locking your vehicle.
During a recent spot check in one Edgewood neighborhood, where more than a dozen thefts from vehicles were reported in little more than a day, Sheriff's Office deputies found 61 unlocked vehicles.
The Harford County Sheriff's Office has found that most of the thefts are committed by heroin addicts who resort to getting money any way they can to support their habits.
"They are looking to acquire either cash they can convert to heroin or items they can sell or trade for heroin," Maj. Jack Simpson, commander of the administrative services bureau, said last week.
It's an epidemic plaguing Harford County, Maryland and the entire country. And it's a common theft in Harford County.
"Every police agency is experiencing the same problem," Kahler said. "It's a crime of opportunity and there's plenty of opportunity."
Thefts from vehicles are the only crime on the increase in Harford County and it's not concentrated in any one area, Sheriff's Office officials said. Thieves are striking in the northern part of the county, south of Route 40 and anywhere and everywhere in between.
Harford County Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler is seeking the support of elected officials to fix what his agency describes as a "broken" salary structure, a structure that is broken all the way up to Harford's chief law enforcement officer.
The Sheriff's Office is trying to educate the community in as many ways as possible about protecting their belongings. They've used electronic signs, social media and even hitting the streets to educate residents, a method that didn't go over well recently with some people after the Sheriff's Office posted it on social media.
"We take reports on a regular basis of things being stolen from vehicles – purses, laptops, gift cards, loose change. The majority are unlocked, and the items are in plain view," Cristie Kahler, director of media relations for the Sheriff's Office, said Thursday. "We've tried to explore every avenue to explain this crime is occurring. This is just one more approach."
Thefts from vehicles are all about opportunity, she said, with three things in common: the car doors were unlocked, the items were in plain view and the items were easily transferable or convertible.
"We're petty sure someone was going around looking at unlocked doors," she said. "No windows were broken."
The crimes based on three premises: desire, opportunity and ability, Simpson said.
"If we remove one of these you can't have a crime. We tried to reduce opportunity," Simpson said. "We can't do much about desire, and as long as they're breathing air, they have the ability. But opportunity in terms of a locked car, or leaving things in plain view, it's something we can possibly influence."
In response to a recent spree of thefts in a few streets in Edgewood – a micro hotspot, Simpson said, when 13 thefts were reported in a 30-hour period – deputies did some targeting of their own.
"When you're talking a street and a half, a couple streets, that's a lot," Kahler said.
Those were just the thefts reported; police believe there were others not reported.
On June 21, deputies walked around the neighborhood in a community policing effort to help residents protect their valuables.
Uniformed deputies walked around the neighborhood that evening, "when we thought everyone would be home," Simpson said, and on their way up to a resident's front door, checked vehicle doors for themselves to see if they were locked.
If the doors were unlocked, Simpson said, deputies would attempt to talk to the owner and urge them to lock their cars.
If they couldn't find them, the deputies put a sticker on the vehicle that says "Attention: Don't be a victim. A law enforcement officer has checked your vehicle and it was found to be vulnerable to crime." It lists the date time and deputy ID number with a list of possible circumstances: unlocked car door, keys in the ignition, visible electronics, visible valuables, purse/wallet in plain view, packages in plain view and other.
If deputies found the owner, they gave him or her a paper listing tips for being safe: lock your car, take your keys and never leave valuables in sight.
"This was completely designed to educate the community to help them not fall prey," Simpson said. "Directed efforts have more of an impact. It's one of a couple steps we're going to employ in that neighborhood in an effort to try and turn the tide, try and stop the break-ins."
People should be comfortable leaving their cars unlocked in their driveways, he said.
"However that's not the reality right now," Simpson said. "We're trying to get ahead of this, but we can't do it without the community's help."
The Sheriff's Office works to treat all crimes as significant events because it is to the victim, Simpson said, even if it's something as simple as a pair of sunglasses being stolen.
"We are taking a proactive approach toward crime in the community. Many crimes can be prevented through community education and outreach," he said. "The most important components are an informed and aware community and strong partnerships between the community and law enforcement. And that's what we seek to build on every day."
Harford County’s “Choose Civility” campaign kicked off with a breakfast event at the Water’s Edge Events Center in Belcamp on Wednesday.