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Erik Karlson, a homeowner whose security system recently led to the arrest of a prowler, recommends installing video cameras and motion detector alarms at home as a strategy to prevent car prowls and other property crimes (Photo: Jesús Hidalgo).
Erik Karlson, a homeowner whose security system recently led to the arrest of a prowler, recommends installing video cameras and motion detector alarms at home as a strategy to prevent car prowls and other property crimes (Photo: Jesús Hidalgo).

Erik Karlson was reading the news on his phone on Oct. 15 a few minutes after 1 a.m. when a motion detector sensor made a beeping sound in his driveway.

Karlson did not see anything after looking out the window but a DIY video system he had installed on his front porch displayed some disturbing images.

A man was looking into his wife’s car.

The Maple Leaf man called 911 immediately. The operator asked for a description of the subject. Police officers showed up at his home, saw the video footage and managed to arrest the suspect approximately one hour later.

Karlson’s case is one of the 38 vehicle prowls reported just in October in the Northgate-Maple Leaf area—with 6,570 reports filed in Seattle in the first half of 2016, according to the Seattle Police Department. The police received 14,250 car prowl reports in 2014 and 12,315 the year after.

As car prowl became the top safety concern among Seattleites according to a 2015 Seattle Police Department community survey, the Seattle Police Department North Precinct is partnering with neighbors to apply diverse technological strategies to fight against this property crime.

The department has designed online surveys to learn about community concerns and is also advertising micro-groups involving police officers and neighbors—called “Living Room Conversations”.

The police also facilitate focus groups through the social network, at which citizens can connect with their neighbors and the police can explain SPD’s new Micro Community Policy Plans.

SPD North Precinct Research Assistant Jessica Chandler said that she hoped these strategies would help the North Precinct find out what the Northgate-Maple Leaf neighbors’ main concerns and specific needs are.

Despite some controversy over SPD’s relationship with Nextdoor, Chandler said response to police outreach has been positive.

“Everyone wants to be engaged and have the opportunity to meet many people that enjoy helping their neighborhood,” Chandler said. “For the most part, people are happy to help because it also helps them in the long run. Helping each other is the main part to keep Seattle a safe place.”

Taking steps to protect against vehicle prowls can be a chore, said Brendan Brophy, the SPD North Precinct’s city liaison attorney. But it’s a fact of life for urban residents, he said.

“You shouldn’t have to worry about it. You shouldn’t even need to lock your car. I totally get that,” Brophy said. “But then, there’s the reality of the situation. Especially being in a big city, it’s tough.”

Currently, some of the department’s strategies to fight car prowls in areas like the University District, Northgate, and Maple Leaf include increasing patrol visibility, gathering evidence at the crime scene, and encouraging victims to call 911 in order to report any suspicious behavior, said Chandler.

Seattle Police Department offers an online map to its webpage users, with which they can check the reports for different crimes. On the left, a screenshot of the map with the location of the 38 car prowls reported in October in the Northgate-Maple Leaf area.
SPD offers an online map to its webpage users to check crime reports. On the left, a screenshot of the map shows the locations of the 38 car prowls reported in Oct. in the Northgate-Maple Leaf area.

SPD has also made its records map and the 911 incidents reported map available online.

But as neighbors might be unaware of the procedures for these strategies, Crime Prevention coordinators are reaching out to the community to inform them of suspicious activity and car prowls happening in the area.

And just like the police, neighbors in the Northgate-Maple Leaf area use technological tools to prevent potential property crimes.

Karlson said that Comcast’s cable subsidiary Xfinity offered his family a security system, including window and door sensors, complementing his DIY security system — two Nest Cam security cameras that he bought on Amazon and motion lights. The cameras send alerts to his phone when they detect motion and record footage for an entire day.

After reporting a home prowler Sept. 29, he decided to add more technology to his system — a motion sensor that makes a beep inside and outside the house every time it detects movement in the driveway.

“Talking to SPD after our first prowl, they said, basically there’s nothing that they can do unless there’s someone actually in the act and present,” Karlson said. “That’s why we ended up getting the driveway sensor.”

Keeping one’s home safe through the use of social media is becoming popular as well.

When the Karlson family moved to Maple Leaf last year, Milly found Nextdoor and then encouraged her husband to use this social network as a tool to communicate with their neighbors.

“I felt it would give us some value to know what was going on in the neighborhood,” Karlson said. “It reminds me of the old-school neighborhood watchdog. I’ve encouraged some of my neighbors who I’m close with to join it. I feel it makes the neighbors a bit closer. I’m a big fan.”

Listen to podcasts from Jessica Chandler and Brendan Brophy for tips to prevent car prowls.

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