PACIFIC COUNTY — Our coast’s break-in epidemic got worse last week, with the Pacific County Sheriff’s Office responding to 25 reports of car prowls on Dec. 29 alone. This amounted to 25 percent of the department’s 98 vehicle break-in cases for the whole year.
Sheriff Scott Johnson says his department started seeing an uptick in car prowls about two weeks ago, which made somewhat of the perfect storm as the agency has been running short-staffed for some time and was “tapped out with overtime” in the last few days of 2012.
“We’re struggling,” Johnson lamented last week.
“Both the undersheriff and I came out on New Year’s Eve and worked as long as we could,” said the sheriff, who estimated that each of them worked close to 20 hours that shift. “Since I’ve been here, we’ve never seen this much of a rash of burglaries.”
Johnson said almost all of the car prowls they have responded to have occurred mid-Peninsula on the west side of the highway between 163rd and 195th streets. He said deputies are targeting those areas. But he added, “If people would simply lock their cars it would prevent these from occurring. Some [of the prowls] are just outside their residence, and they’ll say they saw their light come on but didn’t go check it out. I don’t think a single car had been locked and you know, people have to help us out a little bit [by locking their cars].”
While their call volume keeps increasing, budgetary issues have left the agency short-staffed. This results in nighttime periods where there are no deputies on duty and forcing the sheriff and his deputies to prioritize calls.
Deputies spread thin
The PCSO has seven deputies and two sergeants. According to Johnson, the state average is 1.43 deputies for every 1,000 residents. The PCSO has 0.6 or 0.5 deputies for every 1,000 residents. In order to have ideal coverage, his department would need funding for at least four more deputies.
With the recent prowls occurring after 3 a.m., Johnson said deputies are adjusting their shifts so that there is coverage at that time. With a new year now under way, Johnson said the department will have more funds available for overtime expenses.
“I know our department is expensive,” said Johnson. “But as times get tougher, we deal with more thefts and issues.”
The sheriff said citizens have asked him what his department is doing to stop the break-ins and car prowls. Aside from locking up residences and vehicles and being alert, he said there is not much deputies can do until they are able to catch the crooks red-handed or are supplied with enough evidence to arrest someone.
“We have a board of interest in north county and south county that is focusing on persons of interest, but at this time we have no probable cause for arrest,” the sheriff explained.
While fingerprints can solve a case, Johnson said certain conditions are needed in order to be able to obtain an identifiable fingerprint. He lamented that even when fingerprints are found, it can take a year or more for the crime lab to process the request because there are cases that rank higher in priority.
Last week, homeowners found door hangers explaining that the PCSO is making routine patrols in areas throughout the Peninsula.
“The door hangers only cost a couple pennies a piece and people are thanking us for it,” said Johnson. “We’re not doing anything different but just leaving a reminder that we’ve been there. People have been really happy; I guess they didn’t realize we check their doors and windows.”
The sheriff said citizens may want to consider buying inexpensive video camera systems, such as trail cams.
“They are relatively inexpensive, and if properly mounted, will capture photo of the person rummaging through your things,” Johnson explained. “It’s hard to contest live video.”
Johnson plans to host a series of public meetings to address the ongoing break-ins. The dates a tentatively planned for March and will be published in the Observer once they are definite.