Property crime spike prompts for designated police unit

By Abby Paeth

April 9, 2018

Last September, Morgan Leopold, senior in Media, and Alaina Murphy, senior in Business, became victims of a property crime when their house in Champaign was robbed.

This property crime was one of 2,223 reported in Champaign in 2017. The number is part of a recent spike in property crimes.

In 2016, 2,981 property crimes were reported in Champaign, which increased by 53 percent from the previous year, according to the Champaign Police Department.

In Illinois, 262,306 property crimes were reported in 2016, according to the Disaster Center, and 7,919,035 property crimes were reported in the U.S., according to the FBI. Both the Disaster Center and the FBI have not released the statistics for 2017.

According to the FBI, a property crime includes burglary, motor vehicle theft, arson and personal property theft.

Leopold said the perpetrator came into their house in Champaign between midnight and 5 a.m. She believes the perpetrator came in through the downstairs front window, which is usually left unlocked.

A cell phone, a wallet, a GoPro camera and several purses were taken from the house. Leopold, Murphy and two other roommates were asleep in the residence at the time. They reported the property crime to the police that morning, but the perpetrator was never found.

“I personally was really freaked out at first,” Leopold said. “It just weirded me out that someone was in our house, and we had no clue.”

Murphy said the perpetrator took her wallet from her desk while she was asleep in the same room.

“Even today, I don’t feel as comfortable in my house as I did before,” Murphy said.

Since the crime, the residents are more careful about locking the house before they go to bed, Murphy said.

From 2005 to 2013, Champaign experienced a downward trend in the number of reported home and auto burglaries, according to the CPD. In 2013, Champaign saw the lowest number of property crimes reported in 27 years.

However, two years later, this rate started to increase again and in 2016, this number spiked to the highest number reported since 1999.

Because of this spike in property crimes, the city allocated $300,000 from its budget to start the Property Crimes Unit through the CPD. The unit came into existence on Oct. 1, 2017 and employs a small staff of detectives.

David Griffet, detective sergeant for the CPD, is the supervising detective for the Property Crimes Unit.

In addition, the Property Crimes Unit consists of two full-time detectives – Detective Jody Cherry and Detective Robert DeLong. These detectives dedicate all of their time to investigating property crimes, Griffet said. They follow up on as many leads as they can to catch repeat offenders in the area.

Cherry said in an email the unit has made over 80 felony arrests since its inception in October.

“We have seen a decrease in the number of reported burglaries since the inception of the unit, but it’s too early to attribute that solely to the effectiveness of the unit,” Cherry said.

Griffet said before the CPD received funding for the Property Crimes Unit, it was difficult to allocate resources within the police department to investigate property crimes.

Griffet credits the 2016 hike in property crimes to the lack of resources. Before the Property Crimes Unit existed, the police department did not have enough manpower or time to dedicate to just property crimes. Griffet said the crimes started getting out of control.

The Property Crimes Unit is only temporary, Griffet said. The city could not allocate enough money to fund the unit for more than a year.

“(Cherry and DeLong) are doing things that would normally not get done because we didn’t have those resources,” Griffet said. “These guys are diligently following up every lead that they can and going through these cases.”

Griffet said many property crimes are committed by repeat offenders. Having a unit designated to investigate these crimes helps find the people who continually get away with it.

“By giving two people the responsibility to investigate the majority of these crimes, they’re able to see all the reports that pertain to these offenses within the city of Champaign and their location,” Griffet said. “They can tie them together sometimes.”

As of March 5, the Property Crimes Unit has recovered about $60,000 worth of stolen property, according to Cherry. He said this number would not have been as high if it weren’t for the unit.

Often, the Property Crimes Unit gets information from local pawn shops. Griffet said it’s likely that a perpetrator will sell stolen items to pawn shops in the area.

Leonard’s Pawn and Jewelry, 112 E. University Ave., helps the Property Crimes Unit by reporting every item it buys to a database. The store uses a service called Law Enforcement Automated Database Search Online, or LeadsOnline, after it buys items to resell in the store.

“Pawn shops are required by state law and city ordinance to report all property taken in on pawn or purchased,” Cherry said. “They must provide the police department with a list of that property within 24 hours, and they have to hold it for a minimum of 72 hours before they can resell it.”

After buying an item to resell in the store, an employee at Leonard’s uploads the report to LeadsOnline. From there, the Property Crimes Unit can link specific items that were reported stolen to items bought or pawned. Local businesses can access LeadsOnline for free; however, the CPD has an annual subscription that costs $8,627 per year. That money is taken from the $300,000 budget allocated to the unit.

Ron Bryant, owner of Leonard’s Pawn and Jewelry, said that every day after he closes up his shop, he submits a report to LeadsOnline. The Property Crimes Unit can then search stolen items and trace them back to whoever stole the items using the identification reported to the database. Bryant estimates that perpetrators sell stolen items to the store about eight to 12 times per year.

Bryant has been using LeadsOnline in his store for the past four months, after the police department approached him and recommended the service.

The only drawback, according to Bryant, is the police department recovers the stolen property and Bryant’s business loses money.

“Sometimes I’ve lost a couple thousand dollars and sometimes I’ve lost ten bucks,” Bryant said. “It hurts when you lose money. You lose sleep when you lose money.”

Cherry said this is usually solved by listing the pawn shop as a victim in the police report. That way, the shop will ultimately get reimbursed by the suspect if he is convicted.

Cherry said the majority of property crimes in his time investigating them have occurred because homes and cars are left unlocked. He estimates that about 75 percent of vehicle burglaries occur because the car was left unlocked, whereas unlocked homes account for about 25 percent of burglaries.

This is exactly what happened to Champaign resident Jeremy Hunt in February 2018.

Hunt said his son accidentally left the car keys inside Hunt’s car after retrieving his school bag the night before. When Hunt woke up early the next morning, his car was gone. Hunt said he was one of the first people outside in the morning after it snowed overnight. The perpetrators left footprints in fresh snow.

“I was able to follow the footprints of the folks and kind of trace their steps,” Hunt said. “They had been walking up to everybody’s front door and checking the front door and walking to everybody’s car and checking the cars up and down the entire street.”

Hunt said he could tell that two people were checking unlocked doors just by looking at the tracks. When the perpetrators got to his car, the footprints stopped.

Hunt filed a police report with the CPD that morning. He said the police followed up pretty quickly, but Hunt knew it might be a few days before he would see his car again, if he would see it at all.

Hunt said he didn’t want to wait for the police to get back to him, so he took matters into his own hands and reached out in Facebook groups to see if anyone had seen his car.

Someone a few blocks away noticed Hunt’s car parked in front of their house. The car was recovered, but not without some damage. The car’s radio was missing. Hunt said the damage cost him around $3,200, which was mostly covered by insurance.

Hunt said what really hurt, though, wasn’t the cost of the damage, but the fear of someone breaking in again.

“I’ve grown up here my whole life, and just to know that that would happen in my neighborhood, in a place where I grew up, it’s just disheartening,” Hunt said.

Hunt said his three children, ages six, eight and 10, were afraid for a while because they knew the perpetrators were checking for unlocked residences.

“It’s not fair to them especially,” Hunt said. “They don’t need to be worried about things like that.”

The perpetrators who stole Hunt’s car have still not been caught. Hunt said if he knows one thing for sure, it’s that he won’t ever forget to lock the door to his car or home again.

Griffet said most property crimes happen the same way Hunt’s car was stolen. The majority of perpetrators go door-to-door checking for property that is unlocked.

“A lot of people feel very violated and rightly so, but there are things that we can do to prevent some of that,” Griffet said. “You can keep your car locked. Don’t leave your belongings in plain view. Keep your private residence locked.”