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Atherton police provide update on crime, license plate readers

Officers share lead on possible suspects in Atherton's earlier burglary spree

About 80 people gathered in Atherton's Holbrook-Palmer Park Pavilion on Nov. 18 to hear updates on crime and safety as what police call "burglary season" approaches.

During the meeting, police revealed that they believe a crew of four people, possibly connected to a Chilean gang, may have been responsible for some of the 20 home burglaries reported in Atherton between November 2018 and February of this year.

Police worked with other departments in the county and state and, with the help of phone records, determined the same cellphone was present at burglaries in Atherton in December and January, Cmdr. Joe Wade said. Police linked the cellphone's location to a mini-mart in the Bay Area, which captured surveillance footage of the suspects, he said.

Most of the burglaries last holiday season shared similar methods of entry -- thieves broke in through second-story master bedroom balcony windows, police said.

So far this year, there have been 18 residential burglaries, Police Chief Steve McCulley said. In the most recent, someone stole $200,000 worth of jewelry on Nov. 16 from a home on the unit block of Atherton Avenue, police reported.

Eighteen "is a very low number, but we treat one burglary as too many in Atherton," McCulley said.

License plate readers

Police also discussed automated license plate readers, known as ALPRs; the department is recommending that the town increase usage of the readers due to the crime spree last holiday season.

ALPRs are mounted on police cars or on fixtures such as road signs and bridges, and use small high-speed cameras to photograph about 900 plates per minute, according to a town staff report.

In October, the City Council directed staff to begin testing the devices. Staff expects to begin a 30-day camera testing period in the "next seven to 10 days" at the Holbrook-Palmer Park entrance and exit, City Manager George Rodericks said in a Nov. 25 email. They will be evaluating camera aesthetics, efficacy, visibility, bandwidth, and network connectivity and power requirements, he said.

"It's another crime-fighting tool," Wade said of license plate readers. "They offer a better chance to solve a crime, but aren't an end-all be-all." Police also passed out flyers with answers to frequently asked questions about ALPRs.

A member of the Midpeninsula chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union who spoke at the meeting said she was concerned that installing more cameras, particularly near churches, could infringe on people's privacy. Another meeting attendee asked police to consider enacting annual oversight of its camera system by an independent, outside agency. Other attendees said they are willing to give up some of their privacy to help deter crime.

Addressing the question of privacy, McCulley said, "You have to have trust that we will not misuse the information."

Crime prevention, emergency tips

Police shared several crime prevention tips with residents to help them prepare for the holiday season.

Most burglaries have taken place between 5 and 10 p.m., Sgt. Anthony Kockler said, recommending that residents leave both indoor and outdoor lights on and turn on a radio or TV when they aren't at home. These steps make it appear as if someone is home, and criminals won't want to attempt to burglarize a home if they think someone is inside, he said.

Police recommended that residents activate their alarm systems when away and not place holiday gifts near the front windows of their homes. They also advised residents to avoid having items delivered while they are away.

Residents can register their home alarm systems with the police department, which monitors about 1,500 alarm systems, according to the department.

One resident asked about installing more street lights to make it harder for burglars to go unnoticed. McCulley noted that it's part of Atherton's culture to have rural country-style lanes without sidewalks, which would make it difficult to add more lighting.

"It's the Atherton way," he said.

Police also addressed how to prepare for emergencies.

Windy weather has recently prompted PG&E to shut off power in communities across the state, including parts of San Mateo County, because of concerns about wildfires (Atherton has not been affected by a shutoff so far). McCulley noted that it's important for residents to prepare seven days' worth of supplies in case of an emergency, be it because of a large fire, earthquake or other emergency. He also suggested that residents invest in power generators in case of a blackout.

"The theme for everything tonight is 'get ready,'" McCulley said.

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