Car prowling — when someone smashes your car window and makes off with your stereo, GPS system or anything else of value — may be Seattle's most frequently reported crime.
Tempted to leave that new GPS system in your car? Think you can get away with stashing your laptop behind the seat or your iPod in the glove box?
Well, think again.
You might as well just leave them on the hood of your car with a “For Free” sign attached. At least you’d save yourself the cost of replacing a shattered car-door window, according to police, insurance agents, glass-repair experts and the legions of folks who’ve found themselves victims of Seattle’s most oft-reported crime — the car prowl.
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A two-week snapshot of criminal incidents reported to the Seattle Police Department shows that car prowls, in which windows are smashed and valuables grabbed, are by far the city’s most frequently reported crime and that no neighborhood is immune.
In the last two weeks of November, for example, more than 370 car prowls were reported within the city limits, according to SPD statistics.
Experts agree, however, that those numbers represent just the tip of the iceberg, as most people — especially those who have been victimized more than once — don’t report the damage and thefts to police or their insurance company.
Why bother, they say.
“There’s nothing they can do about it,” said David Gill, who lives in the Maple Leaf neighborhood and said his car has been broken into and plundered so many times he’s lost count.
The cost of replacing the window doesn’t meet his insurance deductible and the police don’t even come out to take a report anymore, he said.
“So, basically, I’ve just given up,” he said. “I don’t leave anything in the car and I don’t lock the doors. That way, if someone feels they have to get in, they won’t break the window.”
While there is no agency that claims to keep comprehensive statistics on car-prowl incidents either locally or nationally, there is a sense that the crime is on the rise in Seattle.
According to Mark Solomon, crime prevention coordinator for the South Precinct, car prowls are crimes of opportunity that typically take less than 60 seconds to complete.
In residential neighborhoods, car prowls often occur between midnight and 6 a.m. but aren’t discovered until people head out to their cars for work in the morning.
Frequently stolen items include GPS systems, laptops and other electronic devices. CDs, purses, wallets, luggage and loose change are also common targets for thieves.
Among the reasons that car prowls are increasing, Solomon said, is that they are lucrative, take seconds to complete and are punished minimally even when prosecuted.
Even if an offender is caught, the crime is almost always charged as a misdemeanor offense as compared with a home burglary, which is a felony, he said.
No one group of people is responsible for the crimes.
“They are youth who are taking a break from burglarizing homes. They are addicts looking for an easy score they can turn into quick cash for their next fix. They are transients walking through the area. They are adults. They are young people,” Solomon said. “Most of all, they are opportunists.”
Solomon and the other Seattle police crime prevention coordinators say the best and easiest defense against car prowling is to remove everything of value from a car.
“Car prowls are crimes of opportunity,” Solomon said. “If you remove the opportunity, you remove the crime. When we as car owners stop leaving our property in our unattended cars, we have fewer car prowls.”
Theresa Tyler, who works at Speedy Glass in Seattle, said she had 12 vehicles in the shop on a recent Monday morning that had all been damaged during car prowls.
She estimates that 97 percent of broken car-door windows are from car prowls.
“It’s busier this year,” she said. “People are getting more desperate and more nervy.”
According to Tyler, the break-ins come in stretches. Somebody will hit all the cars they can in a parking garage one day; another day, prowlers will target a slew of cars on Queen Anne.
Almost universally, she said, the women feel violated and the men angry.
She’s seen so many of them, and been a victim herself so often, that she no longer drives a flashy car.
Two years ago, she traded in the nice car she had with tinted windows, a good stereo, power locks and an alarm for the most basic of vehicles.
“I said, ‘Forget it. I don’t want tinted windows. I don’t want a stereo. Just put wheels on it.’ “
Many people who’ve been the victims of car prowls have found their own ways of dealing with the problem.
Camila Crawford of Northgate was ripped off after she and her girlfriends parked in a garage on Capitol Hill and stashed their purses in the car’s trunk before a night on the town. When they returned, their purses — and nothing else — had been stolen.
Now, when she goes out with friends, they hide their purses well before they reach their intended parking spot.
A Rainier Valley woman, who didn’t want to be named, said she leaves her car door unlocked and a coin jar on her seat as a peace offering to the prowlers.
“It’s a gift so they won’t break my windows and go through my stuff,” she said.
A man who lives in a big house on Federal Avenue East near Volunteer Park and has been a car-prowl victim several times said he tries to remember to bring everything he values inside with him at the end of the day.
Nevertheless, he’s philosophical about the thefts he can’t prevent.
“There are a lot of people around here who need help,” he said. “Sometimes, my car is where they find it.”
Staff reporter Justin Mayo contributed to this story. Christine Clarridge: 206-464-8983 or firstname.lastname@example.org