Police: Vehicle Break-ins Very Preventable

Brentwood Chief of Police Dan Fitzgerald speaks to residents at a public meeting May 13 at the Brentwood Recreation Center. (All photos by Steve Bowman)
Brentwood Chief of Police Dan Fitzgerald speaks to residents at a public meeting to address concerns about vehicle break-ins. It was held May 17 at the Brentwood Recreation Center. (All photos by Steve Bowman)

Remove valuables, lock car doors, Fitzgerald says

By Steve Bowman
Editor, The Brentwood Spirit
Email: bowmansj@sbcglobal.net

A rash of vehicle break-ins in Brentwood over two consecutive nights early this month led police to hold a community forum on May 17 at the Brentwood Recreation Center. Speaking to about 35 attendees, Chief of Police Dan Fitzgerald generally described what happened and how police are responding and he provided tips for preventing such crimes. He spoke for about 20 minutes then answered residents’ questions for about 30 minutes.

Fitzgerald said that on one night the week before, cars were broken into “on several streets” on the west side of town, then the following night “the same thing happened to a couple of streets on the east end of town, and then it’s gone quiet.”

He said increasing police patrols in neighborhoods at night doesn’t always yield more arrests.

“We might not see any type of crime like this again for months,” he said. “It may be next week. There’s no rhyme or reason to it. That makes it a little difficult for us because we are trying to patrol the best we can in your neighborhoods. We’d like to patrol a little more, but if we’re patrolling a little more between 2 and 6 o’clock in the morning every single night for three or four months and seeing and hearing nothing, that gets a little old after a while.”

Brentwood officers Nick Lang (left) and Chris Gibson attend the forum.
Brentwood officers Nick Lang (left) and Chris Gibson attend the forum.

Most break-ins easily preventable

He said vehicle break-ins have been a problem in Brentwood for 10 to 12 years, are cyclical but unpredictable and occur from 2 a.m. to 6 a.m. in both residential areas and retail parking lots. When caught, the offenders are usually young men in their teens and 20s and from out of town. When they find an unlocked vehicle with valuables inside, they commit a “crime of opportunity,” most of which are easily preventable.

“We are constantly amazed at what we see people leave in their cars,” said Fitzgerald. “I’m not just talking about phones and loose change. I’m talking about valuables wallets, purses, guns, jewelry, large sums of cash – we’ve had it all taken from cars here in Brentwood. It’s amazing what people feel they can leave in their cars.”

A camera operator from Channel 5 was at the forum.
A camera operator from Channel 5 covers the forum.

Criminals know police won’t chase

The problem is compounded by Brentwood’s closeness to Highway 40 and I-170.

“They’re not going to pull over for us when we try to stop them because they know we won’t chase them for just breaking in cars so they take off,” said Fitzgerald. “And to be quite honest we don’t want to risk our officers’ lives or anybody else’s life just to chase some kids for taking change and some stuff out of people’s cars. They know that and they kind of have us between a rock and a hard place sometimes.”

But not all outlaws drive here. He said several weeks ago a young male was seen looking in cars and trying to open car doors in the Dierberg’s parking lot at 12:15 a.m. on a weeknight. When an officer questioned him the boy ran but was caught. The officer found out he was 14, lived in North County, had arrived via Metrolink and had a pocket full of change he had apparently stolen from unlocked cars.

Dan Fitzgerald.
Dan Fitzgerald.

Prevention steps

Besides removing valuables from their cars and locking them, Fitzgerald told residents to keep their exterior house lights on at night when cars are parked outside. If a streetlight is out and Ameren is slow to respond, call the Brentwood Police Department and it will contact Ameren.

He also said to report suspicious activity.

“It’s amazing how many times we’ll go up to take a report in the morning and someone will tell us, ‘You know, the dog was barking at 2:30 [a.m.] but I thought it was something else or I didn’t want to bother you guys. Like we’re that busy at 2 in the morning. We want to be bothered.”

He said residents should call 644-7100 for non-emergencies and 911 for emergencies, but that “Either way, it’s the same people answering the phone so we’ll get there just as quickly.”

Assistant Chief of Police Jim McIntyre chats with residents after the meeting.
Assistant Chief of Police Jim McIntyre chats with residents after the meeting.

Guns stolen from here

He said guns are not often reported stolen from vehicles in Brentwood. But he added that recently police in Florissant stopped a vehicle full of guns stolen from cars all over St. Louis, including Brentwood’s Drury Inn hotel and Target store. “It’s a growing problem,” he said.

Police action

Fitzgerald said he is responding to the break-ins by increasing patrols and community education. The best way to keep abreast of crime in Brentwood is on Nextdoor.com, he said. The website describes itself as a “private social network for your neighborhood.”

Dan Fitzgerald answers questions from two residents after the forum.
Dan Fitzgerald answers questions from two residents after the forum.


Following are some of the questions Fitzgerald answered at the forum. The language is paraphrased unless quotation marks are used.

Can we get brighter streetlights?
Question: Could Brentwood upgrade its contract with Ameren to get brighter LEDs on streetlights?
City Administrator Bola Akande: “It has nothing to do with the contract. I met with them last week. They will upgrade up to 25 lights a year. So we encourage you, if you see a light that’s out, write down the tag [‘BW’ followed by a number], send it to Dan or me and we’ll get it to Ameren. They’ve been very responsive.”

City Administrator Bola Akande fields a question.
City Administrator Bola Akande fields a question.

Do you catch anybody who steals from vehicles?
Fitzgerald: “Oh yeah. We have before. We have more luck later on catching them. They’ll steal a credit card and use it and be on film.”

Why police car at York and McKnight?
Fitzgerald: “We’ve been getting a lot of complaints about truck traffic on McKnight, 18-wheelers, so our guys sit up at York and McKnight in the mornings looking for trucks.”

Dan Fitzgerald.
Dan Fitzgerald.

Are your priorities right?
Question: Two people I know got tickets for rolling through stop signs at a particular intersection. In the same area $3,000 of merchandise was stolen out of a car. “Cops are giving us tickets at 7:30 in the morning when we’re trying to get to work and get our kids to school but our cars are being broken into, our property is being violated. It’s just frustrating. Let’s redirect our resources and try to get the bad guys.”
Fitzgerald: “We hear a whole lot of folks who talk about traffic issues in neighborhoods, specifically your neighborhood. … We’re trying to keep everybody happy.”

Are door-to-door solicitors illegal?
Fitzgerald: “They need to get a permit from the city, so ask them that. If they give you the blank stare, call us and we’ll address it.”

Are more stop signs needed on McKnight?
Question: “It’s getting harder to get onto McKnight from York Village because of the heavy traffic. Is there any thought of putting stop signs on McKnight to slow the traffic?”
Fitzgerald: We’ve talked about that. What it does is mess traffic up even more because it backs up traffic on McKnight even further. People think if there are more stop signs there will be more gaps, and it actually turns out that that’s not necessarily the case. McKnight is a really tough nut to crack.”

Would bait cars work?
Fitzgerald: They’re good if you’re trying to stop people from stealing cars. You have to have the car and the manpower and a department our size makes it hard to do. “I don’t really want to leave my $25,000 police car sitting out there with nobody watching it.”

Dan Fitzgerald.
Dan Fitzgerald.

Have you installed any exterior surveillance cameras?
Fitzgerald: “Cameras are really expensive. You don’t see many communities our size with cameras. St. Louis does have cameras in neighborhoods. But I don’t know that it’s something we could afford. … You’d be amazed how many businesses have external cameras, especially on Brentwood Boulevard and Manchester Road. We also have a license plate recognition system on one of our cars that logs license plate information as [a vehicle moves] down the street and sets off alerts for licenses plates that are wanted for crimes.”

Should we reinstitute Neighborhood Watch?
Fitzgerald: Originally it was geared toward kids coming home from school who needed a safe place to go if they got in trouble. But nobody is home at 3 p.m. anymore. Those who are home tend to be elderly and are a little less likely to get involved in something like that.

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