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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Prowlers prevailing in car wars

Police offer advice but not much protection

Vandals broke out the window in Bruce Arnold’s Ford van at his home near the corner of Julia and Marietta in Spokane. (Dan Pelle)
Sara Mcmullen The Spokesman-Review

The advice to citizens from Spokane police is simple: Take valuables out of cars or risk being a willing victim of vehicle prowlers waiting to smash, grab and go.

In response to a rash of prowling-related crimes across the Spokane area, police launched an awareness campaign this month called “Remove It or Lose It!” The campaign urges citizens to be proactive by taking possessions out of vehicles, parking cars in well-lit areas and locking doors.

“It’s such an easy crime to commit,” said Officer Jennifer DeRuwe, Spokane police spokeswoman. “If people don’t leave their stuff out in plain sight, there is nothing there to steal.”

Overall, there’s an association between warmer weather and an increase in crime, but vehicle prowling ranks at the top of the list, according to national crime statistics. In Spokane, police crime analysts reported a 38 percent increase in vehicle prowling this year. Prowling is similar to burglary, except a suspect enters a car rather than a home with the intent to commit a crime.

Prowlers steal cars, too. Spokane ranks fourth in the nation for vehicle theft, an insurance industry group recently reported.

With fewer cops on the beat, it’s more difficult to send an officer to take a report for vehicle and property theft, and for misdemeanor crimes like vehicle prowling. But two victims of the recent spike in prowling say the “do-it-yourself” crime advice from police is of little comfort.

“I have more faith in my water hose than I do my police department,” said Pat Freedle, whose vehicle has been rifled through several times this month in the 3800 block of East Marietta Avenue. Each time, she said, she didn’t bother to call police because she knew they wouldn’t come.

Freedle’s next-door neighbor, Bruce Arnold, said his vehicle was vandalized a month ago. Arnold, who is a live-in caretaker, paid $160 to replace a smashed window. He called Crime Check to make a report, he said.

“Even if the police do come, I really don’t know what they could do,” Arnold said.

His sentiment is echoed by the officers on the street, who said responding to every call is unrealistic, especially when there is no danger and no evidence left behind. Educating citizens on how they can prevent victimization is a better tool, they say, as is urging citizens to call in a report immediately so crimes can be mapped by crime analysts, who track hot spots and patterns.

“When these crimes are reported, and we have more accurate information about where they are happening, an area or neighborhood becomes a focus for general patrol,” said Officer Brian Eckersley with the Patrol Anti-Crime Team.

Reporting also allows PACT officers to follow information that leads to arrests involving multiple suspects and often the recovery of stolen property. By not being “burdened with calls for service … we are able to go out and actively hunt for bad guys,” Eckersley said.

But more often than not, cases of vehicle prowling are unsolvable and property is not returned.

“We’ll solve felony crimes and tie those back to the vehicle prowling,” DeRuwe said, but criminals aren’t charged with misdemeanor prowling.

“We need people to take this to heart,” DeRuwe said of the awareness campaign. “They see that we don’t respond or that we don’t care or that we aren’t doing anything about it, and we actually are. That’s why we launched this campaign.”

But victims said the message is difficult to hear. One Spokane crime victim advocate said that even though victims were not physically harmed, they may still feel violated.

Freedle, the prowling victim, said she can relate: “It’s like an invasion of my privacy. I wasn’t assaulted, but I feel like I was assaulted.”

Image is everything in the police business, she added. “We are the ones who pay their bills.”