Despite city-wide drop in cases, auto theft still rampant at mall

Though crime rates are dropping in Tempe, the mall at Arizona Mills remains one of the highest crime areas and one of the most likely places to have your car stolen.

According to Tempe police, the city experienced a decrease in all crimes including homicide, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny, motor-vehicle theft and arson by 41 percent from 2001 to 2011.

Vehicle-theft cases dropped to 550 in 2011 from 3,215 in 2001, according to statistics posted by police. Of the 2011 total, Arizona Mills accounted for 24 reported cases, averaging two vehicles every month, said Officer Richard Fairclough who patrols the area.

The reduction in auto thefts hasn’t come without some added vigilance by police, however.

“Tempe’s approach to reduce auto-theft numbers has included education campaigns; neighborhood, multi-housing and mall focus; a fusion of operations with technology; and information sharing with other law enforcement agencies to thwart organized syndicates,” said Molly Enright, a police spokeswoman.

To enhance the safety of shoppers’ vehicles and deter crime, the mall provides a 24-hour video system along with 35 to 40 security guards on vehicle-, foot- and bike-patrol.

“The first use of force is officer presence,” Fairclough said.

The average vehicle thief can pop the lock of a car and drive off in about 15 seconds, he said. This makes it hard to tell whether the person entering the vehicle is the owner or not, resulting in most thieves getting away, according to Richard Laux, the second of two officers who patrol the mall area.

Afternoons are the most common time for cars to be broken into, along with dinnertime when most people aren’t in the parking lot, say the officers.

There are things shoppers can do to help prevent their car from being stolen.

“(The Club) is probably the best defense against car theft,” Laux said.

Clubs are pretty common and cost only about $25. Laux said The Club is more effective than alarms because a car alarm will go off about 15 times a day in the mall parking lot and no one pays attention because it’s so common and easy to accidently set off. Fairclough said he has never taken a report on a stolen car that had The Club on it.

The mall also relies on citizens to be on the lookout for suspicious behavior, with officers reporting that most of the thefts that were caught resulted from a citizen call-in.

“We count on citizens to be our partners in preventing crime. Don’t make it easy for thieves to take your vehicle in the first place,” said Enright.

“Our Crime Prevention Unit offers some common sense tips that can help you avoid becoming a victim,” she said.

These include remembering to lock car doors, keeping garages closed, purchasing a steering-wheel device, not leaving valuables visible in a vehicle and etching an ID number for the vehicle on the window glass trim.

Vehicle return rates vary depending on the reason for theft.

Fairclough said most vehicles stolen for the purpose of smuggling are not usually recovered because they are burned to get rid of the evidence. Cars stolen for joyrides, however; are usually found with damage; others are taken for the sole purpose of the car’s parts. Those are sometimes found, but often stripped to a shell.

By Ashley Provenzano. She is a student in the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University.

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