Property crime far from being open-and-shut case

By Morgan Tait, Simon Collins

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 three we map a burglary investigation and look how it only takes seconds to steal a person’s possessions.

BURGLARY SERIES - OVERVIEW

Police prioritise burglaries for best outcomes, but say their complicated nature means they are hard to solve, writes Morgan Tait.

It can take just seconds for a burglar to smash their way inside a home, pilfering as many valuables as they can carry, but the crimes take weeks and months to crack - if they are ever solved.

New data shows that it has never been a more lucrative time to be a burglar, with more than 90 per cent of the crimes - 59,845 - unsolved last year. Police say the 9.3 per cent resolution rate will increase as more of last year's crimes are solved this year and that they must prioritise burglaries against others - including violent and sexual assaults.

Acting Assistant Police Commissioner Richard Chambers said the complex nature of burglary investigation presented a lot of challenges.

"Given the number of burglaries that we deal with and in the context of the other serious crimes that we also have to prioritise, decisions are made to close a case or we will hold on to that case for some time before it's closed."

Evidence had to be solid to convict, he said. "If you're going to be putting someone before the courts you have to have very good evidence to support that."

No one disagrees that the investigation process required for burglaries is complex, time-intensive and must be completed alongside other crimes - including violent and sexual assaults.

ANATOMY OF A CRIME

But victims and politicians are questioning why the cases take so long to be solved - if they are at all - and why there are so many anecdotes of poor service from police on the issues.

Labour's Police spokesman, Stuart Nash, said the police were effectively telling victims their crimes were not important.

"Of course people agree a murder is more important than a burglary, but you still need to solve the burglary or at least try to solve it," he said.

Victoria University criminologist Dr Trevor Bradley said the reality was that burglars were hard to catch.

"It's pretty difficult to catch a burglar after the fact and that's not a criticism of the police, it's just very, very difficult.

"Often there is literally nothing to go on - no forensics or witnesses or anything."

Investigating a burglary

In the Counties-Manukau police district, where a disproportionate number of burglaries occur, a special team has been set up to address the issue.

Prevention Manager Inspector Dave Glossop said three kinds of burglaries came into the police.

"In order of urgency is what we call a 'burgs on' which comes through the 111 system and someone is breaking into a house, has been seen climbing into a window or something similar.

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

"That's treated as what we call a priority one job, where we get there as fast and safely as we can with an organised and structured approach."

He said that may involve cordons, dog searches and door-knocking nearby houses.

"The second category is when someone arrives home and finds that a window is broken and the house has been broken into - and that is when we try and get a forensics officer out there as soon as possible.

"We make an assessment on preserving evidence, so if it has been raining evidence may be lost through the weather or people need to fix something ... so we will prioritise them in order of maximising our potential to obtain evidence.

"The third category is often the one where there is going to be very, very little for us to gather ... and are reporting what we call a historic burglary, the middle one is still sort of historic but there is still an opportunity there because it is still fresh.

"But when there is a substantial time delay ... They are all attended because of the potential to obtain evidence, however, that would be prioritised lower."

READ MORE:
Burglary victim forced to collect own evidence
Eagle-eye view of burglaries
Why thieves prey on their own communities

Police provided the Herald only with response times to urgent jobs, which accounted for only 6.5 per cent - or 4286 - of the total burglaries recorded last year. The data showed officers arrived at the scene within a median response time of 6.6 minutes across the country.

When broken down by police regions, Eastern District Police were the quickest to respond to urgent burglaries in five minutes, followed by Central with six minutes and Bay of Plenty in 6.2. At station level, the data showed that at Houhoura in Northland, the single urgent burglary recorded there was not attended for 3.5 hours.

The median response rate for the two urgent burglaries recorded in Hikurangi, also in Northland, was an hour and three-quarters.

Slower emergency response time could hinge on a number of factors including geography, traffic intensity and how far away the nearest patrol car was, said Mr Chambers.

Although the median emergency response rates were commendable, they come as little comfort for many people who never see their belongings again, nor the perpetrator brought to justice.

Anecdotes from Herald readers who speak of the violation they feel after a burglary, the grief at losing priceless heirlooms and the anger at what they believe is apathy from police, have filled the company's inboxes this week.

"My uncle's house was robbed and the cops never showed up when they were called, they called three months later to follow up but of course it was too late," said Antonia Wade.

Martin Pickering said: "I'm three weeks [since the burglary] and still no word or call."

At Manurewa Police Station, the detectives responsible for handling the lower priority jobs speak of the complexity an investigation entails.

Detective Sergeant Todd McDonald, who is on the Tactical Crime Unit, said a lot of inquiries went into each case.

"A file is put together and sent to us and we review what has been done and what inquiries we need to make."

He said he would speak to victims again, look at forensic evidence, try to find witnesses or CCTV footage from any stores where bank cards have been used, visit local known offenders and go to second-hand dealers or pawnbrokers.

"It just takes as long as it takes," he said.

"Some cases are very straightforward and take one or two days, but one of the hard things is telling the victims that we are not going to be able to solve their cases, that we have come to the end of our line of inquiries."

Mr Chambers said staff were encouraged to keep in touch with victims - but the nature of burglary investigations presented a lot of challenges.

"There are a whole range of reasons why a victim hasn't heard from us for a while or that the case is closed without further work being done on it because there is no new information."

He said he could not comment on cases where victims presented their own evidence to police that was not followed up by officers.

"I can't speak for specific cases but we do use a case prioritisation matrix that helps us make decisions about which file progresses to the next stage of an investigation and we do apply a consistent strategy in making those decisions."

Mr Nash said the explanation was unacceptable.

"They have trivialised burglary to the point where they are now basically telling Kiwis, 'Don't worry about it, there are more important crimes to be solved and burglaries are not important as far as we are concerned'."

The numbers were "terrible" and showed that police needed to change their priorities.

"The police need a wake-up call: They need to put more resources into solving crime."

This was backed by Police Association president Greg O'Connor, who said the balance between prevention and response was off.

"It comes down to the balance between the prevention model, which is designed to prevent the crimes occurring, and the response model, that is to catch the burglars who commit burglaries.

"The model is very heavily weighted in the prevention area rather than the response and that shows in these statistics."

Anatomy of a crime

1. Crime is committed

2. Police are called

Call is prioritised

• Priority 1 - if threat to life or property, or offender still present
• Priority 2 - if is recent and there is fresh evidence for forensics and the scene hasn't been disturbed
• Priority 3 - if the scene is old and/or disturbed

3. Police respond

Urgently to Priority 1

• Eagle helicopter
• Police rush to scene
• Tracking dogs may be used

Moderatley urgently if priority 2 and 3

• "We try and get a forensics officer there as quickly as possible" - Inspector Dave Glossop

Non-urgently if Priority 4

• "If you now have your gnome stolen from your front lawn, that is classed as a burglary. And that is not something that we will pursue with a team of investigators." - Police Commissioner Mike Bush

4. Investigation is launched

File handed from police who responded to investigators

5. Evidence is gathered

• Fingerprints taken/forensic evidence gathered and matched against national database
• Victims interviewed
• Witnesses interviewed
• CCTV footage gathered
• Stolen property followed through ID stamps, known receivers/sellers

6. If suspect found

• Arrest made
• Charges laid
• Court

7. If suspect not found

• Evidence filed and may be re-opened later e.g. is forensic match or similar pattern of offending
• Victims told their case unlikely to be solved

- NZ Herald

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