Study on theft in Presque Isle has police thinking of new prevention, education efforts

Posted Feb. 07, 2012, at 5:08 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 07, 2012, at 5:45 p.m.

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Police will use a university study centered on theft from motor vehicles to both cut down on the problem and educate the public on how to prevent it.

Presque Isle Police Chief Matt Irwin said Tuesday afternoon that he is reviewing the 40-page document detailing the results of the study completed by criminal justice students at the University of Maine at Presque Isle. The research project, titled “Theft from Motor Vehicles: A Study in Presque Isle, Maine,” explored the issue of items stolen from motor vehicles in the city, which typically included cellphones, prescription medications and cash. The ultimate goal is to help police curb the problem.

Dr. Charles Johnson, UMPI assistant professor of criminal justice, supervised nine criminal justice students on the research project.

“This project gave our students the opportunity to recognize a current crime problem, to research possible causes, and to make substantive recommendations for its suppression,” said Johnson. “It was a great way to involve UMPI criminal justice students in a real-world situation tied to their area of study, and to complete work that positively impacts the local community.”

Student researchers talked to Irwin and Deputy Chief Laurie Kelly several times and also conducted research to better understand theft from motor vehicles and to cite evidence of the problem in cities across the United States and also in the United Kingdom, where it is the largest category of police-recorded crime. The students also did specific research on theft from motor vehicles in Presque Isle during the past three years, identified the five most-affected streets and five other streets selected at random for comparison, and conducted two studies of those 10 streets.

Students also studied the affected streets to gauge how many parked cars had unlocked doors and whether valuables were left in sight.

Johnson said that students learned that residents tend to be “very trusting” and believe “they can leave valuables in plain view in their unlocked, unattended vehicles and that those possessions will not be taken.”

“They are surprised when they discover that opportunists have rifled through unlocked vehicles in search of drugs, cellphones, cash and other valuables,” he said. “There appears to be a culture of leaving unattended vehicles unlocked in Presque Isle. It is probable that this practice leads to higher levels of theft from motor vehicles.”

The group’s recommendations to police were to consider adopting a ticket warning policy that educates the public about locking car doors and hiding valuables and to educate the public about the connections between their routine activities and the likelihood that they could become a victim of a theft.

Irwin said that he likes the idea of having some kind of ticket mechanism that would really work to remind people to lock their vehicles. The city is often plagued by rashes of car burglaries which lead to losses of money, CDs and electronics such as iPods and cellphones that were left in cars overnight.

“When we can, we have started having an officer on patrol in the downtown,” he said Tuesday. “We often come across cars that are not locked and it would be nice to put some sort of ticket on the car, but the question is how do we do it and it not be a way for criminals to see the ticket and realize that the vehicle is unlocked.”

Irwin said that he appreciated the fact that the students identified the most affected streets, and said that the department needs a crime analysis tool to give them a snapshot of where crime is happening in the city, what type of crime it is and who is doing it in order to prevent it.

Parts of the study also involved the students interviewing residents about their crime-related concerns.

“Overall, citizens were pretty positive in that they said they felt safe in this community,” he said. “And that part of their work has us thinking about a way for the public to weigh in and let us know how we are doing in terms of solving crimes and handling cases. We are revamping our website right now, so that could play into the final design.”

Irwin said that he will be meeting with his staff to discuss the recommendations made in this study and assess how they might implement some or all of them. In the meantime, the department continues to use the media, its website and social networking sites to remind residents that the best way to prevent being targeted by a thief is to lock vehicles at all times, remove valuables from cars at night and put valuables out of sight if they must be carried in an automobile.

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