Cops Warn Against Late-Night Car Crimes

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Even cars parked in front of residences are vulnerable, as Danny Soodanopolous learned when he found his car covered in peanut butter over the summer.
Even cars parked in front of residences are vulnerable, as Danny Soodanopolous learned when he found his car covered in peanut butter over the summer.

Parking overnight at the train station or for a few hours at the mall leaves cars vulnerable to theft and vandalism. But according to the Nassau County Police Department (NCPD), an opportunistic criminal element on Long Island is targeting cars parked in driveways and in front of homes in the early morning hours as residents sleep.

An Anton Media Group investigation found that there are an average of more than 50 car-related crimes—grand larceny, larceny and criminal mischief combined—per week across Nassau County. And that only includes crimes reported to the police—the actual number could be much higher. The crimes run the gamut from various forms of vandalism or a quick looting to actual car theft. Police say all items left in cars are up for grabs when the criminals are watching—including GPS devices, laptops, cell phones
and even spare change.

Local police say that most of these crimes occur between the hours of 2 and 4 a.m. They believe the majority of perpetrators follow a pattern in which they routinely walk different routes to check for any unlocked car doors, and if one is found, they slip inside under cover of darkness and remove anything even remotely valuable.

Detective Vincent Garcia, spokesman for the NCPD’s Public Information Office, said incidents involving parked cars along residential streets are a popular crime of opportunity among the county’s more felonious inhabitants—perpetrators who include people of all ages and ethnicities.

“Stolen cars, as well as auto larceny and vandalism, are crimes that occur countywide year-round,” said Garcia. “Most of the problems are with the public itself. When car doors are left unlocked or items are left in plain site, it makes it a crime of opportunity.”

Garcia said the police department sends out advisories, alerting the public to these crimes and officers on patrol often take note of the kinds of personal items visible to someone passing by a parked car.

“If we can see it, so can the thieves,” he said. “Do not leave items visible in an unattended vehicle. If you use windshield mounted electronics, removing and stowing is not enough. Make sure to wipe the ring that a suction cup will leave. That alone alerts a criminal that a valuable electronic device is probably in that auto.”

Residents who own newer cars with keyless ignitions need to take better care not to leave the key fob (wireless ignition starter) in their parked car, said Garcia, adding the department saw a pattern in Manhasset last year where this was a factor.

“People leave the fob in the vehicle in their driveway and they think it’s safe,” he said. “But a criminal can just open the door, press the ignition button and drive away.”

Much of the same advice to protect one’s car from criminals is echoed by insurance companies, including Geico. The company said that the quicker a thief can get in and out of a vehicle, the more attractive the crime is. On its website, Geico recommends installing anti-theft devices, parking in well-lit areas and never leaving desirable items in view.

Robert Sinclair, manager of media relations for AAA New York in Garden City, reiterated the point about leaving keyless ignition starters in cars along with other valuable items.

“The only defense is to avoid leaving valuables in cars. These days people leave GPS devices, E-ZPasses, cell phones, tablets and other valuable items in their cars,” said Sinclair. “Even loose change could attract a desperate thief. The police can’t be everywhere. We have to be proactive in protecting ourselves.”

But while residents can take steps to guard against thefts, there is not much they can do to prevent vandals from damaging their cars in the middle of the night, as Danny Soodanopolous of South Farmingdale found out over the summer. While walking toward his car parked in front of his house, he noticed something odd. When he got to his Toyota Prius, he realized what it was. Someone had smeared peanut butter all over his windows, doors and door handles.

“It was incredibly hard to clean off,” he said, adding that a few neighbors who were also hit by the peanut butter bandit installed video cameras, in case it were to happen again. “It was so frustrating. I mean, what could I have done to prevent that? There doesn’t seem to be enough cops out there anymore.”

That seems to be especially true in Nassau County since 2012, when a budget squeeze forced the consolidation of the county’s police precincts. Four precincts were closed—the eighth in Levittown, the first in Baldwin, the fifth in Elmont and the sixth in Manhasset—and then turned into community policing centers. These centers have up to 10 officers on duty, including supervisors, detectives and both desk and response officers, but the centers do not handle arrests.

At the time, Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano said the consolidation would save the county about $20 million, but it would not affect neighborhood patrols.
However, a source who chose to remain nameless said in Plainview-Old Bethpage, which was covered by the closed eighth precinct, the Juvenile Crime Unit was completely eliminated—and that might account for some of the crimes usually attributed to young people.

“They cut back officers and patrols in ‘safe’ areas,’” said the source, who is a former employee of the NCPD. “If you really pay attention, you will notice that there are far fewer police on the streets. Officers have been moved to high-crime areas and areas with drug use.”

But the NCPD said that when examining crime numbers, one will see a pattern of normal spikes and drops across the county, despite any perceived safe or dangerous characteristics of a particular town. Some of these fluctuations can be attributed to time of year—there is usually a spike in the summer months—but no matter the cause, the NCPD pledges to use all of its available resources to keep people and their property safe in Nassau.

“The NCPD is big on intelligence-based policing. We have a group of intel analysts who compile crime data daily, and when they see patterns or problems in a particular area, they are addressed and dealt with immediately,” said Garcia. “Whether it’s stolen autos, burglaries, etc., they see a problem and the precinct deals with it through special or intensive patrols. In most cases it results in arrests.”

And at the very least, Garcia said, alerting police to potential problem areas will make patrols more likely.

“The citizens of Nassau County are also our best weapon,” he said. “They know their communities. We ask that if people see something unusual to call 911.”

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