Car Break-Ins Prompt Conversations About Crime as Scanlon Moves to Form State Task Force
Two teens have been accused of attempting to steal a police cruiser and nearly running over a police officer in West Haven on Jan. 6, and may have earlier committed a string of other crimes along the shoreline including a brazen robbery at a Guilford gas station. This incident and others have sparked conversations about property crimes.
State Representative Sean Scanlon (D-98) introduced a bill earlier this month that would create a task force examining the break-ins and related issues, made up of juvenile justice experts, police, and other community stakeholders.
The teens accused of the crimes, whose names have not been released, are 15 and 16 years old, according to Guilford Police Department (GPD) Sergeant Martina Jakober, and she says their behavior is emblematic of juveniles attempting to break into cars, snatch purses, or commit other petty thefts in the area.
One of the teens in the Jan. 6 crime spree is being charged as an adult, Jakober said, due to a reckless and incredibly dangerous escape attempt after he was confronted in West Haven.
On Jan. 6, after crashing a stolen vehicle, West Haven police said that the driver fled on foot, but circled back around to jump behind the wheel of a police cruiser, hitting “several” nearby officers, two of whom were hospitalized.
The teen was taken into custody after crashing the cruiser as well, according to West Haven Police.
Before that, though, police say these teens stopped in Guilford, in a car that may have been stolen in Westbrook. As a woman shopped inside the gas station, she left her purse in the car, and her toddler son in the back seat of her unlocked car, police say.
The teens grabbed her purse off the seat of the unlocked car. They also stole a lunchbox belonging to the woman’s son, a toddler, who was in the back seat at the time of the robbery, said Jakober.
Those same juveniles also made stops in Clinton, North Branford, and Westbrook that morning, Jakober said.
Jakober said in the past, cars stolen in Guilford have been used in similar multi-town crime sprees, including more serious offenses like armed robberies. For the most part, these people are looking for easy marks—unlocked cars primarily—meaning that residents can do a whole lot to prevent this by simply keeping their cars locked, Jakober said.
Though she didn’t offer exact numbers, Jakober said police are seeing that a large proportion of these crimes are committed by people under the age of 18.
The GPD as a whole and Jakober in particular have worked hard to bring awareness and urge residents to keep their cars locked, with numerous Facebook posts featuring a litany of hashtags and memes. Jakober again emphasized that locking your car doors remains the best and most effective way to keep people safe and protect your property.
“If we’re locking our cars, if we’re taking our stuff, if we’re taking our keys, there is zero opportunity for these kids,” she said.
But she added the incredibly bold-faced nature of this crime in particular and the larger trend of juveniles dabbling in this behavior merits a larger conversation around the justice system, police policy, socioeconomic disparities, and other societal factors that contribute to delinquency and criminal bravado in these young criminals.
“These kids, they’re in situations where they haven’t been raised to know better,” she said. “They’re sucked into these situations where it’s the only option for them...It’s hard to identify one single issue that’s created this problem, but it’s escalating, and it’s escalating to a really bad level—a really dangerous level for the public and a very dangerous level for these kids.”
Data that GPD Chief Butch Hyatt provided to Scanlon and which was shared with the Courier shows that, as of Dec. 18, Guilford had 20 stolen vehicles and 83 vehicle break-ins in 2020. Those numbers were 11 stolen and 55 break-ins in 2019, and 18 stolen and 159 break-ins in 2018.
Scanlon said these numbers don’t necessarily reflect the fact that more teens are trying to break into or steal cars. Just because they are not successful doesn’t mean the danger isn’t there, he said.
“The numbers...would be astronomically higher if people weren’t locking their doors,” he said. “And I think we need to understand what’s happening here.”
Scanlon also emphasized that the issue is not new, and that he has been speaking with community members and the GPD about solutions for some time. He said he envisioned the task force, which likely won’t be able to begin working until earlier this summer as the bill works its way through the state legislature, as taking a very broad look at all related issues, from the juvenile justice system and police policy to socioeconomic factors during the pandemic
“I think we have to get to the bottom of what’s driving this beyond maybe saying, ‘Hey, this is a failure of criminal justice.’ I think we need to look at this as a broader issue,” Scanlon said.
Dr. John DeCarlo currently works as a professor of criminology at the University of New Haven after a long career as a Branford Police Officer, including six years as the chief. He affirmed that the issues at hand were not solvable by simply increasing punitive measures or juvenile justice reform, but added that from a law enforcement perspective, many people in the community were missing some of the underlying principles that can and will prevent these crimes.
“The main function of the police department in this instance is not necessarily having enough [officers] out there to catch these nefarious wrongdoers, but letting people know that crime is easily prevented by some simple expedients,” he said.
Locking cars, as Jakober and others in the GPD continue to emphasize, is not the only measure that people can take, but the principle behind it is the backbone of public safety, according to DeCarlo. Through certain basic concepts of “community policing,” which he said views police not as crime solvers and law enforcement but more as full-time community leaders in crime prevention, residents will take more responsibility for the safety of their own communities.
According to Jakober, some Guilford residents have explicitly told her they will not lock their cars or even houses because they do not believe they should have to, that Guilford is the kind of town where that should not be necessary. DeCarlo said that that attitude is something he has heard from other communities, and is “the equivalent of saying, ‘I’m just going to go ahead and eat a dozen eggs a day because I shouldn’t have to worry about cholesterol.’”
“The first line of defense against crime is the community,” DeCarlo said. “How many [police officers] are out on the road in Guilford? Six, seven cars to cover 50 square miles? It’s up to us.”
Criminals who are looking to make some easy money are always going to turn their gaze on affluent areas like Guilford, he said, and a militarized police force or a hyper-punitive criminal justice system will not change that.
Scanlon also made it clear that he was not advocating for mass arrests or criticizing the work of GPD when he convened the task force, but he added that community members have been feeling “unsafe” and “violated” by people that trespass in their yards and rifle through their cars, and they deserve a response and solutions.
“It’s a way I hope we can respect and appreciate the fact that people feel violated by this, and try to get the bottom of this outside the echo chamber of the blame game and easy answers,” he said.
In the case of these kinds of property crimes, DeCarlo said that police can often do their jobs best by communicating trends in criminal activity and safety measures to residents, and providing clear, transparent access to information and officers.
“Police are really community members. It’s incumbent on them to be community partners, and to constantly be vigilant in the fact that they have to be open and communicate realistic expectations to the public,” he said.
That communication also prevents wild rumors spreading on social media about crime events or trends, DeCarlo said, where inaccurate or entirely false information can quickly catch fire and spark fear or other ugly reactions.
“Police departments have to embrace that unless [they] tell the story, it’s going to get told for [them],” he said. “We have to promulgate real information.”
But whether it is installing motion-sensor lights in driveways or simply knowing your neighborhood well enough to know when something is off, DeCarlo said that in the police-community partnership, the community will always be a large part of the solution.