About 200 Atherton residents filled Holbrook-Palmer Park's Jennings Pavilion on Thursday, Jan. 31, for a police meeting on a recent rash of burglaries in town.
Police held the community meeting to address residents' concerns about crime. Several of the residents burglarized over the last few months attended the meeting and spoke critically of the department, questioning whether police are doing enough to stop the crimes.
One burglary victim asked if the Atherton police are "out of their league" in dealing with the recent burglaries.
Atherton Police Chief Steven McCulley said he "highly disagreed" with the comment. It's "extremely difficult" to find and convict burglars, he said. About 18 percent of property crimes -- including burglary, theft and car theft -- in the U.S. are solved, according to 2017 FBI data.
"The wheels of justice turn slow, but we are working very hard," Atherton Police Cmdr. Joe Wade said.
Spike in burglaries
Police department data shows a dramatic increase in home burglaries in town year-to-year: There were seven residential burglaries in 2017 compared with 26 in 2018.
Things began fairly quietly in 2018, but the last two months saw a spike in the number of home burglaries. Five incidents were reported in November and seven were reported in December.
Someone stole $14,000 worth of electronics from Encinal Elementary School during the first weekend of December. Police have identified a suspect in that burglary, officers said at the meeting. In another incident in November, one or more burglars shattered a window of a home on Broadacres Road and stole a 400-pound safe containing roughly $225,000 worth of jewelry.
Burglars stole $1,991,542 worth of goods in four incidents in January, Sgt. Anthony Kockler said at the meeting. Police said they will have more information on what was stolen sometime this week.
Burglars have mainly been taking purses, jewelry and watches, Kockler said. There likely are two groups of burglars carrying out these crimes, police said.
There were five residential burglaries in January, more than in any other month in 2017 or 2018 except November and December 2018.
The department has increased the number of unmarked police cars with plainclothes officers patrolling town to address the crime streak, police said at the meeting. Police noted it's important for residents to turn on their security cameras and alarm systems. Residents can sign up to have home alarm systems notify the police directly if there's a break-in, leading to faster response times than if the call goes to the security company first, police said.
Some home security alarms haven't activated during break-ins because thieves will smash windows and walk through the hole they create, not tripping motion detectors, police said. A few residents at the meeting recommended installing sound detectors, which will set off an alarm if a window's glass breaks.
A couple of residents burglarized complained that police haven't provided updates on their cases. One person said police failed to interview her neighbors or nearby construction workers after her home was burglarized. Officers asked the woman to speak with them after the meeting so they could follow up with her on the case.
Other towns on the Peninsula -- like Hillsborough -- are also being hit by burglars, Sgt. Jeff Rickel said.
"Atherton still is an incredibly safe town statistically," Rickel said. "It's not even a blip in crime on the Peninsula. We don't want you (Atherton residents) to be so alarmed that you're nervous all the time."
One or more thieves struck as the Jan. 31 meeting was coming to an end, smashing the second-story balcony door window of a home on the unit block of Santiago Avenue at around 8:33 p.m., according to an Atherton police press release. Burglars set off a security alarm at the home as officers were responding to a call of smoke inside another home. This delayed the officers' response to the alarm, police said.
"Based upon the methods used by the suspect(s) to gain entry into the residence, investigators believe these may be the same suspects responsible for many of the previous burglaries," police said in the press release. As of Friday, Feb. 1, police didn't yet know whether any items were stolen from the home.
A residence was burglarized Jan. 3, and there were multiple burglaries and a car theft in a 24-hour period between Jan. 28 and 29. In a Jan. 25 incident, burglars forced their way into a home on the 100 block of Tuscaloosa Avenue by smashing a second-story balcony window, surveillance footage showed. There were at least three burglars involved and about $5,000 worth of jewelry was stolen, according to a police press release.
In another incident, burglars stole $10,000 worth of purses after forcing their way into a home on James Avenue by breaking a rear window between Jan. 25 and Jan. 28, police said.
Most of the burglaries have occurred between 6 and 9 p.m., according to police. Two recent burglaries took place in the morning at homes that were occupied, and both of the suspects were immediately arrested, police said in a press release following the meeting. The two incidents "were not part of the recent rash of burglaries," police said.