Morgan Tait is the NZ Herald's police reporter.

The burglar living in your neighbourhood: Why thieves prey on their own communities

This week the Herald will investigate burglaries across the country in the most in-depth series on the subject ever done in New Zealand. Over five days we will examine where burglaries happen, talk to victims, burglars and the police and find out how you can protect your home and business. In part two we look at burglaries in deprived neighbourhoods and examine the inequality at the heart of the offending.

BURGLARY SERIES - OVERVIEW

Criminals - and experts say that often it's a family trend - tend to operate within the familiarity of their own neighbourhood, writes Morgan Tait.

Can you picture a burglar? Now imagine a victim of their crimes. Chances are these people look the same.

New data shows the areas hardest hit by burglaries are the most deprived parts of the country, and research shows it is the people living there who are committing the crimes.

Click here to see how your neighbourhood compares to the rest of NZ

Never-before-released figures obtained as part of a major Herald investigation show police logged 97,707 burglaries in the 18 months after a new recording system was introduced on July 1, 2014. While burglaries happen in nearly every neighbourhood, the figures show that more than 17,300 were in the top 100 suburbs - with 21.5 per cent of the crimes happening in just 5 per cent of the country's neighbourhoods.

The three worst-hit areas in the country are in south Auckland. The business-dominated area around the Westfield mall in Manukau was heaviest hit, with 75 burglaries in the 18-month period in question. Another primarily commercial area, in East Tamaki, was second-hardest hit, with 71.

The worst-hit mostly residential area was part of nearby Takanini South with 68.

South Auckland community leader Joseph Fa'afiu said he believed inter-generational crime was to blame.

"In some of the families there is a cycle of criminal activities that hasn't been broken," he said.

"The overall back-story would be where one of the parents have to find a 6am to 6pm job and leaving their kids to fend for themselves.

"The rents have gone crazy in our South Auckland area and our parents have to work harder to make ends meet."

ARE YOU A VICTIM? OR A BURGLAR? TELL US YOUR BURGLARY STORY

University of Canterbury criminologist Jarrod Gilbert said there was a common misconception about burglars and victims that needed to be broken. "People don't tend to travel to commit crime, and in the poorer areas where there isn't the flash alarm systems.

"What's quite clear is that the demographic of victims tend to be very, very similar to the demographic of offenders. Victims tend to look almost identical to offenders."

He said burglaries followed patterns of other crimes.

"When you look at many types of crimes, they are overrepresented in lower socioeconomic areas so no one should be surprised."

Victoria University of Wellington criminologist Dr Trevor Bradley agreed.

"It's an understandable assumption to make - that the biggest rewards are going to be in the higher or more affluent areas because they may have more valuable property.

"That's sometimes the case but what we find much more is that the majority of burglars are young and highly opportunistic type offenders so they see an opening, they see an opportunity and they don't really put a lot of thought into it."

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He said crime pattern analysis showed that offenders committed crimes close to their homes.

"Offenders feel much more comfortable operating in an areas that they are more comfortable in - so it means they are all the more likely to operate in their regular areas.

"That notion of familiarity is very important - they know where to hit, where to hide ... "

In the top 50 suburbs, 26 were in Auckland and 17 of those concentrated in South Auckland.

Mr Fa'afiu, a pastor who co-chairs a social service network Connecting Papakura, said the area's youth unemployment statistics were "unbelievable". One in five (19 per cent) of young people aged 18 to 24 in Papakura and Manurewa were on benefits in December, double the 9.5 per cent Auckland average.

He said police were doing their best to cope.

"Our area commander says the first thing he thinks about in the mornings is that statistic about burglaries."

Police have repeatedly emphasised the importance of prevention to curb burglaries but experts say it is not that simple for people living in these areas.

"In those deprived areas it's much more likely that security features are of a lower standard and inferior," said Dr Bradley. "While the middle classes or affluent classes will have monitored alarm systems and sophisticated locks, this is all pretty expensive equipment.

"Deprived households are much less likely to have these features and that makes them much more vulnerable."

John McMenamin, from ProTechHome Security, has been installing security systems for 20 years and said he has "seen it all" when it comes to burglaries.

"I'd say about 90 per cent of burglars just smash in a door and take stuff they can carry. I get there and there's a door hanging off the hinges and people are sitting in the lounge looking like they want to move out. I have seen people get burgled so bad they sell the house."

However, security came with a price tag.

It was $600 to $700 for the initial outlay of a basic alarm system that could be monitored for about $30 a month and go up into the thousands for things like cameras, sensor beams and panic buttons.

Contrary to police narratives about sophisticated stealing syndicates, Dr Bradley said desperation was undoubtedly a factor.

"When you've got nothing, you don't have much to lose. Especially for younger ones, they would be going into crime to get the things that everyone else takes for granted."

The most important factors are social, he said.

"People learn behaviours and adapt accordingly. If you're in a particular community where your role models are committing crime, you're more likely to accept that culture as normalised and take part in it also."

Mr Bradley said particular types of products were more lucrative than others - and that consumer electronic goods were common in most households.

"At the moment we know that electronic products are very hot products - laptops, computers, smartphones.

"They are very light, very portable. Even in very deprived areas you are still likely to find electronic goods and so on with schools demanding laptops and tablets.

"Young people are under tremendous pressure to wear the right clothes, and have the right phone ... ."

South Auckland community leader Joseph Fa'afiu said he believed inter-generational crime was to blame for the high level of burglaries. Photo / Dean Purcell
South Auckland community leader Joseph Fa'afiu said he believed inter-generational crime was to blame for the high level of burglaries. Photo / Dean Purcell

While the deprivation trend shone through, burglaries were still rife in other more affluent areas where Mr McMenamin said they tended to be more planned.

"They are getting a bit smarter and targeting places in Grey Lynn-type areas - professional people who are out all day and have lots of computers and jewellery and things.

"One I've heard of recently is some guys in a truck wearing high-vis, they say they are cutting down trees but they are really burgling houses."

Devonport-Takapuna Local Board chairman Joseph Bergin said people would also be surprised at how much burglary happened in his area, but it tended to be "co-ordinated and organised" by adult burglars targeting wealthy streets rather than random burglaries by local youngsters.

"There are instances where there are very well co-ordinated and planned attacks in certain parts of our area because of that perception of a lot of wealth," he said. "In this most recent period it seems to be getting better. The long-term trend would be that it's getting better. There are quite a few new housing activities in our area that have taken out some of the problem areas."

"My home is a buffet"

Otahuhu woman Vicky Pearson has been burgled about eight times in the past three years.

"I've had the whole top layer of bricks from my wee knee-high fence taken [and] I've had all my clothes pegs taken.

"My garage was broken into and my expensive lawnmower stolen. They also pinched a duvet, most likely to protect their vehicle from the mess from the lawnmower.

The guttering was stolen.

"In addition the house itself was also broken into twice; once to take my laptop, and the second time to clean out jewellery and iPods.

"The side door was dead-bolted, but they just smashed the whole door out of its frame.

"They tried to take the TV but I suspect I disturbed them - when I arrived home and went to check the letterbox I found my TV on the front lawn. It is now superglued to my TV cabinet ...

"My home is a buffet."

Ms Pearson wasn't surprised burglaries often occurred in low socio-economic areas.

"The burglaries around here are little and often. Not really big planned-out robberies that you might get in Remuera.

"Some people around here have bars on their windows to prevent burglars getting in. No one on my street but there's homes a block over, still in Otahuhu, that have them.

"I think the burglars see it as shopping. They drive around the area, see something they want and then help themselves."

Ms Pearson believed the burglars who targeted her property might have moved away, as nothing had gone missing recently.

"Either that or they've been scared off. My landlord has been really good about improving our security and I had been living alone but now I've got flatmates in so there's more people coming and going."

Ms Pearson said she loved living in Otahuhu otherwise and didn't intend to move.

Security tips

• Lock everything, all the time. Use quality locks on all doors and windows and valuables - keep them locked.

• Install alarms and sensor lights, or talk to your landlord about doing so - and label your property as protected with signs/stickers.

• Get to know your neighbours and join/start a neighbourhood watch - know their cars and comings and goings, and ask them to clear your mail/watch your house when away (offer to do the same for them).

• Never leave a note saying you're out, and make your home look "lived in" when you're not there.

• Don't lave keys in easy-to-find places, or garage door openers and valuables in your car.

• Mark your valuables, take photos/video of them, engrave them and register electronic serial numbers at snap.org.nz.

- Additional reporting: Catherine Gaffaney

- NZ Herald

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