By Allison Klein and Dan Keating
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, April 20, 2008
Burglaries are on the rise in the District, with police blaming the souring economy as a contributing factor in a 21 percent increase in break-ins over the same period last year.
Criminals are jimmying locks, kicking in front doors, breaking through roof hatches and skylights, and sometimes even sawing security bars off windows to get into houses and businesses, police said. They are hauling off computers, flat-screen televisions, jewelry, digital media players and other items, which they then sell.
Police data show that 922 burglaries were reported in the city in the first quarter of the year, compared with 761 in the same span last year. The biggest increases have been reported on Capitol Hill and in neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River, including Congress Heights.
Overall violence, however, is dipping across the city, with homicides down by 11 percent this year. With the busier summer months approaching, police are trying to get a handle on the burglary problem while keeping violence down.
"It's the burglaries that are getting us this year," said Cmdr. Joel Maupin, who heads the 7th District, in the southernmost area east of the Anacostia River in Ward 8.
Assistant Police Chief Diane Groomes said someone looking to commit a crime for money might find burglaries more appealing than a face-to-face street robbery. Most of the burglaries have occurred during the day or when no one is on the premises.
"It's easy cash," said Groomes, who tracks trends as head of patrol operations. "And unlike a robbery, you generally don't have someone looking at you, so it's easier to get away with it."
Chuck Wexler, executive director of the District-based Police Executive Research Forum, said the sluggish economy could be spurring property crimes, an assessment shared by some police officials.
"It's an indicator of how economics can have some impact on crime," Wexler said. "The reality is, there is not a clear line you can draw between unemployment and poverty and crime, but there are some types of crime -- burglaries, for example -- that lend themselves to fencing."
Most police departments in major cities focus on violent crime, he said. "When you put resources into violent crime, it inevitably means something else doesn't get the same attention," Wexler said.
In the 1st Police District -- which includes Capitol Hill and the area around the new Nationals ballpark -- an average of 55 break-ins were reported monthly through March of this year, compared with 39 a month in the same period last year.
Cmdr. David Kamperin, who heads that district, said he created a street-crimes unit in February in part to combat the break-ins. His officers have since arrested four suspects and tied them to 30 burglaries, he said. They also have recovered more than $2,600 worth of stolen goods from pawn shops, mostly in Prince George's County.
In recent weeks, Kamperin said, police in his district are seeing some results. The number appears to be tapering off, he said.
That's welcome news to Capitol Hill resident Michael Stroud, who has been burglarized three times in the past year -- including on Memorial Day, when thieves pulled a moving truck into the alley behind his home. They cleaned him out of about $45,000 worth of computers, clothing, art, jewelry and a 52-inch plasma TV.
"They took a boatload of stuff within one hour," said Stroud, 44, a real estate agent who lives near the Potomac Avenue Metro station. "And it was broad daylight."
In September, a thief broke into Stroud's garage and took a digital camera and laptop computer from his car. Stroud saw the man and called police, but by the time an officer arrived, the burglar was gone. The third break-in occurred early Jan. 29. Stroud heard a noise and looked out his back window.
"I see the guy standing at the garage door with a mini-crowbar," he said. "I said, 'Oh, no! Not again.' "
Stroud called 911 as he watched the thief use the crowbar to break the lock on the garage. Police came quickly, Stroud said, but the man fled empty-handed down an alley into the darkness. The officers were still at Stroud's home, interviewing him about what had happened, when they got a call that a man trying to break into a nearby house had just been cornered by a dog. Thanks to the pet, police caught the man.
Police took Stroud to the scene, where the suspect was in handcuffs. "It was the exact same guy," Stroud said.
Leyvanze Howard, 38, of the District was charged with second-degree burglary, according to D.C. Superior Court records, and his case is pending indictment. Howard was convicted in 1994 of a burglary charge, the records show.
No one has been arrested in the first two break-ins, however, and Stroud said he feels "terrorized."
"I've toyed with the idea of moving. If you don't feel safe in an area, it doesn't matter how many alarms you have," he said. "Every little bump you hear, you wonder: Is this somebody breaking in?"
Across the Anacostia River, in communities such as the area around the new Giant on Alabama Avenue SE, thieves have been getting into construction sites and houses under renovation to steal tools and copper piping and fixtures.
"They take it to a salvage yard and sell it," said Maupin, the 7th District commander. "It's another way to make some money."
In his district, an average of 53 break-ins a month were reported through March, compared with 38 a month in the same period last year. In many break-ins, he said, thieves slinked in through windows, sometimes by taking out air conditioners, and made off with PlayStations and other electronics.
Maupin has assigned two detectives to work exclusively on burglaries in hopes of spotting suspects, trends and patterns. He also has increased foot patrols in alleys and instructed his officers to stop anyone walking down a street with electronics to confirm that the goods aren't stolen.
"Most of it is a small group of people committing them," Maupin said. "It's a matter of tracking down them and their associates."