Crime & Courts

Break-ins soar in Columbia, dip in counties

Home burglaries in Columbia are up 32 percent so far this year over last year.

From Jan. 1 through Oct. 5, 1,150 dwellings have been burglarized in the capital city. That's compared with 869 for the same time period last year.

"These are hard economic times. I'm sure that those in the criminal element are out there taking from those who are not criminals to help support their lifestyle," said Columbia police Capt. Thomas Dodson.

In the surrounding counties of Richland and Lexington, home burglaries are down about 7 percent so far this year.

Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott and Lexington County Sheriff Jimmy Metts said aggressive police work and liaisons with citizens have led to fewer burglaries so far in 2009.

Burglaries are break-ins at unoccupied houses or apartments, most occurring during the day. Burglars target money, guns, jewelry and small electric items such as iPods.

Home break-ins are up across the city, not just in any one neighborhood, police said.

Many residents are fearful. The Heathwood community near Dreher High School, which rarely has had burglaries, has experienced at least seven since late last spring. The spate has residents shaken.

"Short of digging a moat and installing a drawbridge, we don't know what to do," one Heathwood-area woman told Columbia police Chief Tandy Carter and others at a Monday night meeting at a neighborhood home. She did not want her name published for fear of becoming a burglar's target.

At the meeting, police said they were doing some things in the Heathwood area, such as sending more patrol cars down neighborhood streets.

But Carter said police can't do everything.

"Last year, we had some 16,000 crimes in Columbia," Carter said. "We probably have less than 200 officers to respond to those crimes."

Carter said police do target areas with increased crime.

In Heathwood, residents said they will explore other things, such as setting up an active neighborhood alert system, getting brighter street lights and parking unused police cars along neighborhood streets.

In general, nationwide, fewer than 20 percent of home burglaries are ever solved, police said.

Dodson, who was at the Heathwood meeting, said city police have sent profiles of the Heathwood area burglaries out on a national police profile wire. The requests ask whether other departments have experienced burglaries in neighborhoods like Heathwood - well-to-do, lots of shrubbery and trees, winding streets and big houses with big yards.

"It's what I call urban camouflage," said Dodson, explaining a burglar could easily go into the Heathwood area in daytime posing as a jogger or someone just out for a walk.

"We want to provide assurances, but the neighbors have to realize they are their own first line of defense. They are the ones that have to pick up the phone and dial 911," Dodson said.

At one Heathwood burglary at an unoccupied home, a burglar alarm sounded and was heard by a neighbor. But the neighbor didn't call 911, he said.

Dodson said catching burglars is a result of luck, good investigative work or scientific detection - or any mix of the three.

For example, earlier this year, Columbia police arrested a suspect in a wave of Rosewood burglaries.

A fingerprint lifted by police at one of the break-ins resulted in the arrest of William Smelcher III, 33. He has been linked to 13 burglaries, police said. His fingerprints were on file because he had felony convictions on his record, Dodson said.

City police extensively debriefed Smelcher as to his techniques, Dodson said. He told police that he rode around Rosewood on a bicycle, looking for unoccupied homes.

He only stole things he could carry unobtrusively on his bike. And he deliberately made friendships with local police so they wouldn't think his presence in the neighborhood was suspicious, Dodson said.

Meanwhile, people who live outside Columbia are experiencing fewer burglaries.

Lott said his crime prevention officers go to great lengths to set up neighborhood groups known as crime watches.

"Basically, it's just getting nosy neighbors to be organized and look out for each other, and when they see something suspicious, to call law enforcement," Lott said. "It's neighbors looking out for neighbors."

"If you see kids walking around at 10 a.m. on a school day, you just don't ignore it," he said. "You call 911. Kids will cut school and break into houses."

Under the crime watch system, each street has a street captain and neighbors have a telephone or e-mail tree to get to the word out, Lott said.

"Bad guys actually look to see if you have crime watch signs up," Lott said. "There's strength in numbers."

Metts said his department uses a sophisticated computer program developed by the New York City police department that analyzes where and when crime is occurring and then makes projections about where and when similar crimes will likely occur.

"We get a pretty good projection about where these hot spots are," Metts said.

That information is forwarded to each of the department's three units. Each has aggressive strike forces especially created to target the hot spots through stakeouts and other techniques, Metts said.

Lott said his department has a similar system.

Columbia City Council member Belinda Gergel was at Monday's police-neighborhood meeting, along with council members Kirkman Finlay and Daniel Rickenmann.

Gergel said later, "Clearly, the neighbors have council's attention on this whole issue of residential burglary. We want to probe and explore everything we can do."