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Portola Valley home invasion rattles town residents

 

Little more than a year after Portola Valley's Town Council voted not to install cameras to record license plate numbers of vehicles entering and leaving the town, a recent home invasion by armed burglars is spurring residents to reconsider the choice.

Following the home-invasion robbery of an occupied home in Portola Valley, a community meeting was held June 15 for residents to talk to San Mateo County Sheriff's Office officials about the threat of burglary in their community.

Three days earlier, on Sunday, June 12, at around 10:30 p.m., a home on Golden Oak Drive was targeted by three robbers, according to the Sheriff's Office. They entered the home with handguns and, when confronted by the home's residents, demanded valuables. The residents complied and the robbers fled.

Because the investigation is ongoing, detectives said, specific details about the case could not be disclosed.

More than 75 people came to the community meeting, some of whom said they have experienced home break-ins firsthand.

One Portola Valley woman, whose home was broken into in 2014 on the same street where the June 12 incident took place, said that after one's home is broken into, "You lose your sense of peace."

Another woman, who asked not to be named, said her Portola Valley home was broken into about two years ago while she was out at yoga for just an hour and a half in the middle of the day.

"I lost irreplaceable treasures," she said. "Now I'm considering a gate."

License plate readers

During the June 15 meeting, rumblings in the room hinted that residents could favor installing license plate readers at three locations where vehicles enter and exit Portola Valley: Alpine, Portola and Arastradero roads. One officer suggested that the burglary on Golden Oaks could already be solved if Portola Valley had installed fixed license plate readers.

However, as recently as 2015, and with an expected cost of $75,000, the Town Council did not support installing them. That decision came after robust discussions in Portola Valley about the desirability of license plate readers. Though there are not fixed readers in Portola Valley, patrol cars can use portable license plate readers in the town, said representatives of the Sheriff's Office.

Craig Hughes, Portola Valley's vice mayor, said that there are unanswered questions about the technology. For instance, would a database tracking license plate entries and exits of the city be considered public data? If so, what would happen if an abusive partner filed a public information request for license plate reader data in order to track down a victim of domestic violence? How long would the town retain the license plate data? Where would such data be stored safely?

Questions

The meeting included a rapid-fire question-and-answer session. Responses came from a panel of officials, including Sheriff Greg Munks, Lt. Scott Kirkpatrick, Detective Nick Boragno, Detective Jon Sebring, Lt. Mark Kuykendall and Detective Salvador Zuno, who is public information officer for the Sheriff's Office.

Following are some of the questions and answers:

Q. Why did the home invasion not trigger "SMC Alert" (a county-wide automated alert system)?

A. The detectives said they could not yet offer an explanation.

Q. How many burglaries are there in Portola Valley? How does this number compare with other nearby areas or regions?

A. In 2015, there were nine residential burglaries in Portola Valley. So far this year, there have been three, according to Lt. Kuykendall. In general, burglary is on the rise in the county, state and nation, said Detective Zuno.

Q. What do burglars tend to be after?

A. "Anything of value," said Detective Zuno. Most burglaries involve items that can be taken quickly, such as jewelry, cash, laptops or tablet computers.

Q. What can I do to protect my home?

A. Lock windows and doors and don't let strangers in the house. Other measures – such as dogs, home-alarm systems, motion-activated lights and cameras – all work to deter burglars, said Sheriff's Office officials. Even putting up signs that claim the home has an alarm system, or putting up something that looks and flashes like a camera, can work as a deterrent.

Q. What about guns?

A. People are allowed to have guns in their homes. However, it is unusual for burglars to carry guns in the jurisdiction of Portola Valley. The Sheriff's Office advises going along with any demands burglars make. "We wouldn't recommend taking (them) on in a gunfight," a deputy said.

Q. What do you know about local burglars?

A. Burglars often travel in crews of three to nine people, said Detective Sebring. In some cases burglars have been inside the home before.

Q. Why do burglars target some homes?

A. Burglars often study homes before they attempt to break in. Homes are easier targets if they have large shrubs near the house, which are good as hiding places, as well as driveways where burglars cannot be seen but can escape quickly. People who are known to have valuables in their homes, either by their occupation – perhaps as a jeweler or antique dealer – or reputation, may also be at higher risk of being targeted, detectives said.

Q. Will police respond faster if I call on a cellphone or a landline?

A. It used to be that all cellphone calls went to the California Highway Patrol dispatch center, rather than the local police dispatch, creating some delay with local law enforcement services. However, that has changed, so now, unless one is on the freeway, all 911 calls go to the local dispatch. That said, residents who live near the the freeway may still have their calls routed through the CHP, and so in some cases may be better using a landline. They can check by calling the Sheriff's Offfice non-emergency phone number at 650-363-4911.

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