There were 15 auto burglaries reported in Fort Walton Beach in January. In every case, the vehicle had been left unlocked, said Fort Walton Beach Police Department Maj. Mark Raiche.
“People are not using basic things like locking their cars, hiding their valuables, taking their valuables out of their car, and it’s crimes of opportunity,” he said.
It isn’t the first time officers have seen an increase in auto burglaries. Raiche said the numbers spiked in September when police responded to 22 break-ins. The numbers were stagnant until last month, when police saw another spike.
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Investigators throughout Walton and Okaloosa counties had some success in tracking down a core group of people who were targeting vehicles in high-end neighborhoods late last year.
But Raiche said police believe more than one group is targeting cars in Fort Walton Beach. The recent burglaries have been occurring at random spots throughout the city, including hotel and business parking lots and residential neighborhoods.
“It’s probably more than one group of people,” Raiche said. “Typically, if there’s one person or groups of persons you’ll see a cluster of burglaries in a neighborhood or parking lot. But with them being scattered out around the city, it’s a crime of opportunity.”
Thieves have taken anything valuable left sitting out in the vehicles, ranging from cash to electronics. Oftentimes, firearms also are one of the main items stolen.
Raiche said police often can trace stolen firearms back to shootings and other crimes that have occurred in the area. No firearms were stolen out of cars in January, “which is an improvement,” he said.
Still, police are urging residents to take precautions to prevent thieves from breaking into their vehicles. The number one thing residents can do to prevent auto burglaries is make sure their car is locked, Raiche said.
Most thieves will not break a window out of fear of creating noise, and it is even less common for them to be carrying around tools to break into cars.
“They want to operate in the shadows. They want to be quiet about what they do so they don’t raise alarm and get the opportunity to victimize more people,” Raiche said. “If the cars are locked, they try the door handle and move on.”
People should remember to take valuable items out of their cars and to keep items out of plain sight if going into a business or visiting a park. Keys and garage door openers also should never be left inside a car.
“What we’ve seen in the past — not only just us here but throughout the county — is a lot of times if the car is unlocked and the keys are left in it, it becomes the transportation to go do more burglaries,” said Raiche, who added that thieves also use garage door openers to come back and break into homes.
Other ways to deter thieves include keeping homes well-lit or parking in well-lit areas and installing security cameras. Raiche said police have not been able to obtain much video surveillance footage in recent burglaries.
“Typically we’ll have an officer come do a neighborhood canvas after a crime and they will look for video,” he said. “If people will help us by making that video available to us, we can come check that and it may be something that we can use to help solve the crime.”
Residents should notify police if they notice any suspicious activity such as an unfamiliar car driving slowly through their neighborhood late at night. To contact the Fort Walton Beach Police Department, call 850-833-9546.
“We are happy that people feel safe in the city of Fort Walton Beach,” Raiche said. “We want them to feel safe and not have a fear of crime, but we need them to take some basic steps to help us help them keep the city safe.”