As a Fitchburg police officer responded to a report of a stolen car located in the city around 3 a.m. June 21, he noticed an open garage door.
Then he saw a group suspiciously entering a home on the 2800 block of Ivanhoe Glen.
As it turned out, he was interrupting a burglary in which the garage door had been opened by a garage door opener left in an unlocked vehicle parked outside.
That story is an example of what Fitchburg Police Department Sgt. Edward Hartwick says is an upward trend over the past few years in the number of stolen vehicle reports in the city. So far, he said, there have been 46 compared to 38 at this time last year, when 64 were stolen by the end of the year.
“It’s a bit of an alarming trend that these stolen vehicles are now being used to commit other crimes and facilitate other crimes,” Hartwick said. “From a homeowner’s perspective, it’s alarming that someone is going to enter your home to look primarily for vehicle keys.
“We obviously have a significant concern for everyone’s safety at that point.”
As in the past few years, Hartwick said, it’s primarily juveniles committing the crimes, some as young as 12, and many repeat offenders. That can make a solution more complex.
“The challenge is coordinating a community-wide response between law enforcement, juvenile justice providers and the criminal justice system … to adequately provide resources and address whatever issues are going on with these juveniles on a case by case basis,” Hartwick said. “Making arrests is not going to necessarily solve the problem.”
In 2017, there were 72 car thefts over the entire year – but only 30 of those were before Sept. 1. The year before that, it was 24 all year.
It’s a region-wide trend, as well, with multiple departments around the county seeing an increase, including Madison. The vehicles are often stolen in one community and then driven elsewhere, which Hartwick said requires cooperation among the agencies.
Sharing a data analyst among the cities of Fitchburg, Monona, Middleton and Sun Prairie helps that effort, he said, and vehicle tracking systems like OnStar have been helpful.
“The biggest consideration that we have now is coordinating our efforts with other law enforcement agencies and sharing information,” he said.
They’re also reliant on citizen reports. Sometimes, those can be delayed or even skipped if nothing is taken during a car break-in. Hartwick said police often hear about such incidents during another interaction weeks or months later.
Even if nothing’s taken, Hartwick advised residents to report any suspicious activity, whether that’s finding car doors open in the morning or noticing someone across the street trying to open a car door who you know doesn’t live there. Those reports can help the department evaluate patterns, he said, and look for home surveillance or other opportunities to identify suspects.
“It really boils down to neighbors knowing what is normal for their neighborhood and kind of questioning what that behavior is, and is it something that falls in line with what normally occurs here?” he said.
The department wants the community to be a “partner” in its efforts on the trend, Hartwick said, and that can be as simple as remembering to close your garage door when out doing yard work and locking your vehicles overnight.
“We continue to educate the community as much as possible,” Hartwick said. “This is a community wide problem, we all have a piece of this.”