Fitchburg police March 2020

Police squads lined up outside of the police station.

Thefts from vehicles have risen sharply in Fitchburg this summer, according to a June 27 news release from the Fitchburg Police Department.

It’s a continuation of a trend that began three years ago, Lt. Edward Hartwick said.

The thefts have risen steadily since then. There were 22 thefts from automobiles over the months of May to July in 2018, and 46 thefts during that three-month period in 2019. As of noon on Friday, July 24, there had been 58 thefts since the beginning of May this year.

“In kind of broad strokes, what we are seeing is a continuation of a trend that started Labor Day 2017,” he told the Star on July 24.

Last month, the department recorded its largest number of thefts from vehicles during a single summer month yet, with 27 incidents in June.

Hartwick said the department typically sees an uptick in thefts from vehicles during the summer because nicer weather and increased travel prompts people to leave their vehicles outside more frequently.

Hartwick added that not only are vehicles more likely to be unlocked during the summer months, but also garage doors are more likely to be open as people are more likely to be outside spending time in their yards.

“It’s important that in the busyness of summer, preparing for returning to school, you be deliberate in crime prevention techniques so we don’t have to talk to you because your car was stolen,” he said.

The spike in incidents has been spread across the city in areas including Schumann Drive, Placid Street, Triverton Pike Drive and the neighborhoods south of McKee Road and south of Lacy Road.

The majority of incidents involve vehicles not being locked, with incidents typically occurring late at night or early morning.

“One thing we are not seeing is cars broken into like breaking a window to steal a purse,” he said.

Hartwick notes it’s not just a Fitchburg issue – it’s happening all over Dane County. He said it’s safe to say at least one group of young people engage in these activities somewhere in the county every night.

Footage provided by homeowners has led police to believe that most of the thefts were committed by juveniles in an already stolen vehicle.

“Groups of kids make it through a neighborhood in fairly short order,” Hartwick said.

Changing motives

Hartwick said one of the trends the department has seen with thefts is an evolution from what he called “car shopping, or entertainment.”

He said that prior to the trend, thefts from cars usually involved items such as GPS systems, cigarettes and loose change. Now, in many of the incidents, police are seeing keys or fobs left inside the automobile, allowing for it to be stolen, as well as garage door openers.

“Generally speaking, there’s been a shift in motive as to why theft from auto cases are occurring,” Hartwick said. “The goal now is to find garage keys or door openers.”

This has led to an increase in two related crimes: Vehicles being stolen and burglaries from homes.

There were 20 incidents of entry into a garage or home resulting in burglary from a residence over May-July in 2018, 18 incidents during that time in 2019, and 23 incidents for that quarter as of noon on July 24. From May-July, there were 16 stolen vehicles in 2018, 18 during that time in 2019 and 19 in 2020 as of July 24.

Hartwick said that the primary driver of entering residences is to steal cars, and those stolen cars are not always recovered and are sometimes found with damage.

“If they’re able to get access to your home, it’s to get keys – not wallets,” he said. “One point easy to overlook is the presence of a garage door opener left in a car. I understand the convenience, but it’s a double whammy if you leave your car unlocked and leave the opener inside.”

Communal prevention

One other trend has made the job of law enforcement more difficult: Unreported thefts from vehicles.

Hartwick said after a reported incident of theft, officers will canvas a neighborhood to interview other residents, and often learn of related incidents after the fact.

“It’s important to notify us,” he said. “People see their car was gone through, but don’t contact us. We’d rather find out about it at the time.”

Hartwick said being aware of incidents allows the department to put them on a radius on a map, which is helpful to drive a couple things – knowing where to allocate resources, and knowing where officers should spend time and focus prevention efforts.

“It’s a two-way street, we try to get the word out, but also get info back from the community, like footage or seeing a car that’s been gone through,” Hartwick said.

He encourages “active and thoughtful crime prevention” such as developing a nightly bedtime routine of making sure car doors are locked and garage doors are down. The department also responds with extra patrol, and if time permits, attempting to alert residents to open garage doors.

Hartwick said one of the department’s prevention tools has been advocating for neighbors to look out for each other too, and know how to get a hold of each other.

He said while one household may be efficient about closing a garage door, if a neighbor is not good about it – it puts a whole neighborhood at risk and perpetrators are finding several homes to target at once.

“It’s alarming and concerning on many fronts, but one positive is people can take an ownership role and do their best,” he said. “Anything to make those thefts more difficult is super effective.”

Neal Patten can be contacted at neal.patten@wcinet.com.