Palo Alto saw a spike in property crimes during 2012, with a 52-percent increase in residential burglaries since 2011, a 26-percent increase in automobile thefts and an 11-percent increase in larceny, according to the Palo Alto Police Department (PAPD). Nine residential burglaries have been reported in 2013, according to a map published on the PAPD website last updated on Jan. 18.
Although the PAPD has not identified a cause for the increase in crime, PAPD Sergeant Brian Philip said that it might be because Palo Alto citizens have gained a reputation as easy targets, an issue that he said many cities along the Peninsula face.
“From what we have heard from suspects we have arrested, our cities are considered what they call ‘softer targets,’” Philip said. “Word is out on the streets that Peninsula cities are good places to go get stuff.”
Some Stanford students also share the perception that Palo Alto is a safe and generally crime-free city.
“I haven’t ever felt unsafe there,” said Ariana Bhatia ’16, who goes into Palo Alto approximately twice a month. “You always have to be aware of what is going on around you in any city, but I feel like it is pretty safe there so far.”
Laura Kurt ’14, who goes into Palo Alto about three times a week, said that she has “always felt safe” in Palo Alto, especially on University Avenue. However, she has known friends who have had their bike seats or other parts stolen while the bike was parked at the Palo Alto Caltrain station.
Stanford students have been most affected by auto burglaries, bike thefts and petty thefts, according to Philip.
Students who go into Palo Alto are often the victims of laptop theft or pickpocketing in restaurants, he said. Thieves sit at tables near students and wait for an opportunity to pickpocket their purses, wallets and bags.
The Stanford Shopping Center was also a target area for auto burglaries during the 2012 holiday season, Philip said. Many of the victimized shoppers left their purchases in plain view in the parking lot.
“People like to come here and shop here and eat here, we get a lot of traffic on weekend and that causes our property crimes to go up,” he said.
There were 48 reported automobile thefts in 2012, an increase from the 38 reported thefts in 2011. The number of larcenies, including thefts of items from vehicles, also increased from 943 in 2011 to 1043 in 2012.
“Auto burglaries have been absolutely off the charts,” Philip said. “The [thieves] are hammering our downtown public parking lots.”
However, residential burglaries worry the PAPD the most. Police were especially concerned by a recent series of stealthy burglaries, in which criminals entered houses while the victims were sleeping and sometimes used the victims’ vehicles to escape.
“Those [cat burglaries] were really concerning because if the residents encountered the bad guys in their house, you can end up with more of a home invasion,” Philip said.
Burglars haven’t been targeting any specific area for an extended period of time, Philip said. He said that the most commonly victimized areas vary month-by-month, with a recent increase in burglaries in the south end of Palo Alto between the Oregon Expressway and San Antonio Road.
Residents also often make themselves vulnerable to burglaries by leaving electronics visible in their cars, leaving house windows open and leaving doors unlocked. The PAPD estimated that in the 149 residential burglaries in 2011, 64 percent of burglars gained entrance to the home through unlocked doors or windows.
Philip noted that negligence on the part of homeowners was only one of multiple possible factors for the rise in property crimes recently; other explanations include budgetary constraints in the penitentiary system that have caused more criminals to be released on supervision rather than serving jail time, as well as a depressed economic climate.
“We’ve looked at the economy being part of the issue with people being out of work and looking for easy ways to make money,” Philip said. “The price of gold seems to be a huge factor. In a lot of these residential burglaries, gold and jewelry are being taken.”
Despite the property crime theft, Palo Alto’s violent crime statistics remain far below the national average. In fact, 2012 marked the third consecutive year with zero homicides in Palo Alto.