Brattleboro police respond to surge in car break-ins

Theft from vehicles more than doubled in fourth quarter of 2019, compared to same time period a year earlier

BRATTLEBORO — Police have confirmed what dozens of members of the Brattleboro, Vermont Facebook group have anecdotally asserted: that car break-ins are becoming more frequent and more brazen.

On Jan. 22, resident Dan Braden posted a photograph of his car's smashed front passenger window.

“[I] hope whoever did this enjoys the $40 that [was] in there,” Braden wrote.

A 225-percent increase in larcenies from vehicles around town has residents concerned and has prompted town officials and police to convene a forum on Feb. 29 to hear concerns and to come up with an action plan.

Police Chief Michael Fitzgerald and Police Capt. Mark Carignan attended a special meeting of the Selectboard on Jan. 28 to talk about the problem.

Between October and December 2018, there were 12 reports. That number increased to 39 for the same time period in 2019.

“This increase is just what was reported to the [police department], and I believe the actual number to be higher,” Selectboard Vice-Chair Tim Wessel posted on his official page in an update to citizens about the town's response to the surge in crime.

At the meeting Michael Lonardo, a resident of Marlboro Avenue, noted an increase in auto and home break-ins in his neighborhood.

“It's got us all pretty scared,” he told the board.

He said he met with Fitzgerald and Town Manager Peter Elwell and told them that he and his neighbors wanted a public forum with representatives from the police, as well as state and local government officials, in the hope of getting answers quickly.

Selectboard Chair Brandie Starr said the Feb. 29 forum will be held at 10 a.m. at Brooks Memorial Library, with an agenda and the panelists to be determined.

Confusion about Vermont law

At the meeting, Fitzgerald tried to address apparent confusion about what legally constitutes trespassing.

The police chief said that there is no law in Vermont related to entering a vehicle without permission.

He said this means if someone enters your car, rummages through it, but does not damage anything and does not steal anything, there is no law in the state under which that person could be charged with a crime.

Carignan added that, at the same time, under Vermont law, if someone walks onto property that is posted or fenced, that action is considered trespassing and is an arrestable offense.

Fitzgerald said the spike in car break-ins is not town-wide. Some neighborhoods, such as Marlboro Avenue, are seeing significantly more activity, he said.

“We are reaching out to neighbors and talking with them,” he said. “We've changed some of our tactics in the overnight hours related to these neighborhoods.”

“It has produced some results, but obviously, not the results we're looking for,” Fitzgerald said.

The chief emphasized that residents should call the police, even if nothing was taken or there was no vehicle damage.

While someone can't be arrested for entering a vehicle, that person could be arrested for other offenses, such as violating court-ordered conditions or having an active arrest warrant.

“If we get complaints from certain neighborhoods, we know where to focus our efforts,” Fitzgerald said. “Nothing is too small.”

He also warned against using social media as a substitute for calling the police, calling it “irresponsible” to post photos of people online and accuse them of theft.

“When they posted individual photos of who they suspected, and one of those people in the photos is incarcerated, it's wrong,” said Fitzgerald. “You'd be upset if your photo was posted and you were accused of criminal activity.”

That warning doesn't mean the police aren't using social media themselves. On Jan. 17, police posted a brief video clip of a masked person, whom they described as “a suspect in multiple felonies in town” and encouraged the public to “share widely.”

Police recommend caution

The police department also advises residents to lock their cars and houses, and to keep valuables out of view of thieves.

“The overwhelming majority of thefts from cars occur in your driveway,” the police cautioned on the department's Facebook page. “Many people wrongly believe they only need to lock their car downtown or at the grocery store, but that their car is safe in their driveway.”

“This is a fallacy,” the post said.

In his memo to residents, Wessel wrote that “[m]ost thefts from vehicles occur in the owner's driveway, and many burglaries in rural areas involve unlocked doors.”

“Do not keep valuables such as a purse, cell phone, cash, or prescription drugs visible from outside the vehicle or home. The presence of such an item could motivate a thief to risk breaking a window.

“You also should not leave indications of valuables visible. For example, if a thief sees a cell phone charger in your car, he may assume there is a cell phone in it. These items should be hidden in a glove box or brought into your house.”