Rash of Thefts from Vehicles Keeping Cops Busy
About $9,000 worth of items stolen from dozens of mostly unlocked cars in Port Washington and Saukville; thefts continue in rest of county, too.
Port Washington police often face busy summers — between covering for officers on vacation as well as monitoring increased crime activity — but, right now, many of the officers are putting in extra overtime to help combat a string of thefts sweeping across Ozaukee County.
"We always see more activity in the summer, but I will tell you that this is ... the most significant crime trend in the city (in the six years) I’ve been here," Port Washington Police Chief Richard Thomas said, adding he's commiserating with other Ozaukee County chiefs who have had the same problem.
About three dozen thefts from cars in Port Washington and Saukville since May — mostly from unlocked autos — are linked to nearly $9,000 in lost property. The thefts continue as recently as Tuesday, when Thomas said two more thefts of electronic items from unlocked vehicles were reported.
"We’re going to have to try some things a little more strategically from a patrol standpoint almost immediately," Thomas said.
Repeating a pattern from other suburbs, including Whitefish Bay and Menomonee Falls, thieves move from car to car, swiping electronics, purses or wallets, loose change or cash. Estimated losses in Port Washington are more than $7,000; in Saukville, about $1,500.
"Anything they can grab, they grab," said Saukville Police Lt. Jeff Goetz. Incidents there have occurred on nine separate days, some days with more than one victim. Goetz said it's likely there are more thefts.
"For every one we've got reported, there have to have been one (person) that didn't call," he said.
Consider the case of one Port Washington victim who — in light of the string of thefts this summer — reported in July the theft of a GPS unit that likely occurred in April while the car was parked at Port Washington High School.
Thomas has been unable to pinpoint evidence that might lead to a single ring of suspects, but said he's hoping a break in one municipality will connect to thefts in another.
Thefts happening all over the county
Port Washington and Saukville are not alone, as Cedarburg and Mequon each have endured spurts of similar break-ins into unlocked cars.
There were two episodes in Cedarburg in late July, for instance — one with four thefts, and another with 10. Each was bunched in a geographic area, said Police Chief Tom Frank, though investigators believe the two series are not related.
The set of four took place overnight from July 27-28; the total value of items taken was $710. For the group of 10 thefts, Frank said it was likely related to a situation at a local gas station. A vehicle carrying out-of-town residents tried to buy gas, but a credit card was rejected and they had no cash on hand. They returned an hour later with cash; that window coincides with the series of thefts.
Mequon Police Capt. Dan Buntrock said such crimes are common in his city, which covers 49 square miles and is directly adjacent to Milwaukee. Sometimes the perpetrators are local juveniles with too much time on their hands; other times they are from Milwaukee.
Both men said there have been coordinated rings committing these suburban crimes in the past, but nothing this summer so far indicates that kind of activity.
Is there a pattern?
In Saukville, Goetz said every one of the victims has left the car unlocked, another reason law enforcement continues to encourage residents to lock their doors. Goetz said patrolling hasn't changed as the department's philosophy "has always been to drive past every house in Saukville once a day."
Port Washington has had a few “smash-and-grab” incidents in which windows were broken out or locks were jimmied, but the typical theft is from an unlocked car. Thomas said his department has identified certain days and times to amp up patrolling, but because the thefts aren't reported as they happen, it's hard to create a solid timeline.
The thieves are also not leaving to easy a trail to follow as the thefts seem to be occurring at random throughout the cities. This map depicts the location of the thefts in Port Washington and Saukville.
Thomas said residents are inclined to leave their car doors unlocked, feeling that Port Washington is a small and safe community — a sentiment that leads to an unfortunate increase in the thefts.
"Our whole focus is not only trying to prevent but we need to get the community to work with us by keeping their vehicles and valuables secured," he said.
Do you have information?
The Port Washington Police Department's crime analyst has gone over the reports, giving police more direction in working to catch the culprits.
Thomas said that news articles by both Patch and the Ozaukee Press shining light on the issue, as well as residents taking more steps to lock their car doors and stow their valuables, have slowed the trend.
Still, little evidence is available to help police solve these cases. People with information about these crimes can notify police anonymously at (262) 268-7682. Messages left on the hotline are checked regularly throughout the day, and callers providing tips leading to arrests will be eligible for a $50 reward.