What I learned last weekend: If your car gets broken into, there’s probably no point in calling the police because they won’t do anything.
This turns out to be true even if you direct police to the thieves’ van, with the perpetrators sitting in it holding your stolen stuff in plain view. The police will tell you to forget it, and call your insurance instead.
Last weekend I was at my son’s soccer game at Woodland Park in Seattle. It was pouring, so we foolishly left a purse in the car. Someone smashed the driver’s side window and snatched the purse.
Because nobody saw the crime, the police told us just to file a report online.
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When I got home, my kids, savvier navigators of the modern world than I am, had already tracked the thieves down using the GPS locator of an iPhone inside the stolen purse.
“They’re at a 7-Eleven on Aurora,” my daughter announced triumphantly.
So it was that last Saturday night I found myself slouched in a car in a parking lot on Aurora, eyeing my fellow Seattleites through the fogged windows. Which one of you stole my stuff? I figured there’d be clues, like a rundown car or someone acting shifty. But nobody looked like thieves. After a while, everybody did.
When the silver minivan parked next to us drove off, we could see our iPhone moving down the street on the Find My iPhone app. So we followed it to another parking lot, and again called the police.
We reported the make and model, the license plate and the location. But the dispatcher was dismissive. Go home and file an insurance claim, she said.
One purse with 80 bucks cash and an iPhone hardly rates an all-points bulletin. But when you’ve got the thieves trapped, the police still won’t come? The dispatcher said she would try.
So we sat there, waiting, watching the van from a distance. After an hour, I got frustrated and called the stolen phone. No answer, but the van drove off. So we gave chase again.
This time the dispatcher was furious. Not with the thieves or the police who never come. With us.
“Stop following them!” she ordered. “Pull over immediately. You’re going to get yourselves shot.”
This sounded ominous, plus she refused to send a squad car except to a fixed address. So I let my stolen stuff go. Eventually an officer did come (probably because the dispatcher told him we were nuts). He was sympathetic, but when I showed him where the thieves had gone — to the Fred Meyer parking lot in Greenwood — he said he couldn’t do much.
How about you go up to the minivan, do a knock and talk, and I’ll set off the iPhone alarm, I suggested. He said I couldn’t come along due to liability — and he wouldn’t take my phone to set off the alarm himself.
Later he called and said he hadn’t seen the van. So we drove to the Fred Meyer parking lot, and sure enough, there was the van. The thieves now knew we were following them — because one held our iPhone up to us and shook it, as if to say, “Here it is, come and get it!”
I didn’t know whether to laugh or pull out a baseball bat. Fortunately for me, I did not bring a baseball bat. It was midnight. We drove home and seethed. The signal from the stolen iPhone had gone dead.
The next day when I called some glass-repair companies, no one blinked at this story. Happens every day, they said. Police never do anything. In fact, some thieves want you to track them, so they can try to sell your stolen stuff back to you. That’s how confident they are the police are no threat.
So the whole time we thought we were chasing, we were being lured.
There’s a silver lining, my glass repairman said. The glass-repair business is booming.
In the past two weeks, there were an astonishing 426 smash-and-grabs reported in Seattle. A few years back, we did a front-page story about how car prowls had become the city’s top crime, with 370 in a two-week period. My thieves — unlike me — are working in a growth industry.
Seattle police, I get that this is petty crime. It’s on me for leaving stuff in the car. There also was no proof who did the smash-and-grab, so even if you had come, it would have been tricky to charge them with anything.
But it doesn’t take a detective to see how punting an entire crime category over to the insurance industry could cause these types of nuisance crimes to spiral out of control. One warning sign: In Seattle, the more serious car thefts are up a whopping 44 percent this year versus last.
Can we at least start making these thieves feel a little heat? Especially when they’re served right up for you in a silver minivan?
Because I saw it with my own eyes out in that Fred Meyer parking lot: Right now, they’re just laughing at us.
Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or firstname.lastname@example.org