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Burglaries in Birmingham drop 30 percent, on pace to dip lowest in decade, police say

By Carol Robinson

September 19, 2014

Burglaries in Birmingham have dropped 30 percent over the past three years, and this year's numbers are on pace to dip the lowest in at least a decade, police officials say.

Other property crimes, specifically auto theft and unlawful breaking and entering of a vehicle, also have decreased in the wake of stepped-up police efforts and tougher state laws and city ordinances. "We've worked extremely hard to lower the crime rate in the city, and it's really showing in these categories,'' said Birmingham Police Chief A.C. Roper.

"It's not a bleak picture, as some would say,'' said Birmingham police Capt. Allen Treadaway, who also is a state representative. "The public needs to know that there is success happening in combatting Birmingham's crime."

Murder, and all violent crime, tends to dominate headlines. Property crimes, however, affect way more people. "Anytime somebody comes into your home and goes through your personal belongings, it's real and the effect is lasting,'' Treadaway said. "We take these kinds of crime serious, as we do all crimes."

Several years ago, a surge in property crimes in Birmingham propelled the city to a No. 2 ranking in overall crimes among cities of more than 100,000 people despite a drop in violent crimes, according to the FBI's 2011 crime statistics. In that year, the city recorded 90 property crimes per thousand residents, recording 12,841 total property crimes.

In 2011, Birmingham police reported 5,806 burglaries to the FBI. Those numbers have since steadily declined: 2012 – 4,704; 2013 – 4,059. Police officials project 3,800 for this year.

"When you take off 2,000 fewer burglaries of businesses and residences being broke into, that is significant,'' Treadaway said. "It also outpaces the national average."

Treadaway said a number of things have led to the decrease. First and foremost, he said, is the strong support of Mayor William Bell and Police Chief A.C. Roper, who has driven numerous initiatives to address property crime.

"Three to four years ago, one of the major crimes we were seeing was in the area was copper theft and that was impacting our businesses, our faith-based community and our residents,'' he said. "We had multiple, multiple thefts involving air conditioners, and anything else to do with copper and aluminum."

As a result, House Bill 278 was passed by the Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Robert Bentley in May 2012, which established new requirements for sales of scrap metal and stiffer penalties for metal thieves. Theft of scrap metal and transactions involving it were illegal before the bill's passage, but that legislation took if further.

Under the revised law, sellers of scrap metal must be photographed, provide a copy of a personal identification card and give information to identify their vehicles. Scrap metal purchasers must submit the information to a statewide database and keep it for at least one year from the date of sale.

Depending on the nature of the crime and whether it is a repeat infraction, violators can face anything from a Class B misdemeanor, punishable by up to six months in prison and a $3,000 fine, to a Class A felony, punishable by up to 99 years in prison and a $60,000 fine.

"That had a major impact because Birmingham, immediately upon passage of that, implemented several new crime-fighting strategies for scrap theft,'' Treadaway said. "In working with our scrapyards, we were able to identify many of the individuals responsible for this type of crime,'' Treadaway said. "In addition to that, the City of Birmingham re-wrote and updated its pawn shop ordinance to address those people selling stolen items."

In addition to the state and local legislation, police continued special operations aimed at property crimes. For example, in October 2012, police set a trap for burglars and the bad guy took the bait. In one month alone, police arrested seven people during a Bait House operation.

Using houses, apartments and businesses, burglary detectives, along with patrol officers, targeted various burglary hot-spots in the city and set up surveillance on the bait properties. Typically the way Bait Houses work is police outfit a vacant home or business with security equipment that will catch burglars red-handed.

Also in 2012, Birmingham police began using a nationwide program, LeadsOnline, which lets officers search a database with millions of sales transactions from scrap metal recyclers each day to locate stolen metals. The year prior they had assigned a full-time detective to monitor pawn shops, and a detective to do the same at the city's vast number of scrapyards.

In the first two months of using LeadsOnline, Birmingham police found more than 75 metal theft suspects.

Other efforts include Operation Close-Out, which targets property crimes in specific neighborhoods and is often carried out toward the end of the year. In 2010, for example, police made nearly 400 arrests during the initiative.

Also contributing to the decrease, Treadaway said, is the monthly Impact meetings held by top police officials. In those meetings, they track crime and crime trends. "Technology has made it where we are addressing these things in real time instead of delayed time,'' he said. "Where we are seeing crime happening, we're able to address it much quicker."

From 2011 through 2013, there was a 10 percent drop in the category of unlawful breaking and entering a vehicle. Going back to 2010, it was at about a 33 percent decrease from then until now.

There were 3,060 vehicle break-ins in 2010. Here's the breakdown for the years that followed: 2011, 2,670; 2012, 2,434; and 2013, 2,382. Police project 2,001 vehicle break-ins for this year.

The category of auto thefts also has also seen a double-digit drop – roughly 25 percent, Treadaway said. There were 1,325 vehicle thefts in 2011, 1,042 in 2012 and 987 in 2013. Police project 997 for the end of this year, which would be a 1 percent increase.

Those numbers are for the actual thefts of vehicles. They do not include the crime of unauthorized use of a vehicle, which is when someone you know takes your car without permission.

"2013 was the first time in decades we've seen auto thefts drop below 1,000 in a calendar year,'' Treadaway said. "If you go back to the 1990s, it was not unusual for the city to be over 3,000.

"Again, we are addressing the issue quickly,'' he said, "and technology has helped us because cars are harder to steal now."

Investigators have no doubt auto thefts can be further reduced. "It's an unfortunate reality that about two-thirds of our stolen vehicles have the keys inside,'' Roper said. "Police tactics and vehicle technology is of no benefit when a citizen leaves the vehicle running while shopping in the neighborhood store."

There will always be room for improvement, and police know that. "We've made progress but more work needs to be done,'' he said. "We're pushing for every neighborhood to have a strong, connected neighborhood watch program. Nosy neighbors can help prevent crimes of opportunity.

"When you look at the numbers, you can easily draw the conclusion that it's a much safer city,'' Treadaway said. "Birmingham is headed in the right direction."


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