License to steal

Have police given up trying to solve smaller crimes, or does it just seem that way?

Because there are limits to police resources, officers must play the odds—and some crimes are low-percentage shots. But Reno police have some hints on how to increase your chances of a break in the case.

Because there are limits to police resources, officers must play the odds—and some crimes are low-percentage shots. But Reno police have some hints on how to increase your chances of a break in the case.

RN&R File photo

Ever hear the expression, “There’s never a cop around when you need one”?

If you’ve been the victim of a nonviolent or petty crime recently, the chances are good that you never saw a police officer. My friends and I have wondered whatever happened to the friendly neighborhood cop who came around to investigate even the smaller crimes, so I asked Lt. Ron Donnelly of the Reno Police Department’s Detectives Division to review several cases of which I had personal knowledge, in order to determine what happened and why.

I walked to my truck one night to find that someone had broken in and stolen a toolbox. I called the police, expecting an officer to come to my house, take fingerprints from the truck door and take a statement. I got a recorded message. I left my name and the nature of my business. About three hours later, an employee of the Police Department called and said she would be happy to take a statement over the phone, but that it would be impossible for an officer to come to my house. I filed the report, but I never heard another word about the crime.

Last summer, a friend and her family all went out for dinner, a show and gambling. She discovered her wallet had been stolen. She called the credit card companies, then hotel security. The police were called and given the information that the credit card companies knew where the stolen cards were being used and that hotel security had a video of the person who stole the wallet. Because no one was in imminent danger, the dispatcher told her to file a police report the following Monday. That was done, but to the victim’s knowledge, nothing ever came of it.

Last fall, a man identifying himself as being with Chevron was calling locals to tell them they’d won books of vouchers totaling $250 worth of gas. All a “lucky winner” had to do was pay to ship the vouchers by giving the caller “those little numbers in the top right corner … and on the bottom” of a personal check. One “lucky winner” who wasn’t suckered by the scam tried to alert authorities by calling the Sheriff’s Department, which recommended calling the Police Department, which recommended calling the Attorney General’s Office.

Several days later, a police officer returned the call and then mailed a police report to the “lucky winner,” who by now was equally disgusted by the attempt to defraud and by the feeble efforts of law enforcement. He threw the report in the trash.

Three different cases, the same apparent result. Are the police really not interested in petty crime? According to Lt. Donnelly, it’s not that they don’t care; it’s that they usually don’t have enough useable information even to begin an investigation.

“And when you call, if the dispatcher or officer doesn’t seem to share your feelings, and you have to wait several hours for an officer to arrive, then you’re going to feel like no one cares and no one wants to help you,” he said. “Let me assure you that that’s not the case.”

So they do care, but they know there’s probably not a lot they can do, so they would rather not spend a lot of time on it. That sounds harsh, but you can probably see why police wouldn’t send patrol cars and a SWAT team to your house over for some stolen pliers.

Such time can be used more productively on cases with a greater chance for a return on police resources.

My tools, for instance, had no distinguishing marks, and I witnessed nothing. My case was what Lt. Donnelly calls a “non-actionable” report. That means that no matter how upset you are, if you don’t have information that can help the police, there’s no action they can take.

What about the possibility of lifting fingerprints from the scene of the crime? Donnelly says it’s an expensive long-shot, especially on vehicles: “The surfaces found in most cars don’t contain fingerprints because of the texture of the dashboard and the like. [Still,] people get mad at us for not thoroughly powdering their car when something’s been stolen.”

There are a couple places on your car that are suitable sources for fingerprints. This is why you can insist that an officer come to your home when you’ve been victimized, even if the dispatcher tells you it will be several hours. Patience on your part can mean getting your stuff back.

Also, even if you file a non-actionable report, you may still get your property back by keeping up with police auctions and public viewings of unidentified stolen merchandise the police seized. By showing the police the report you filed and identifying your items, you can get your property back.

If you have engraved your initials or other markings (never your Social Security number) on your property, or if you have a list of serial numbers, or if you saw who took or may have taken your items, then you can present the police with what Donnelly likes to call “an actionable report.” With just a little information, an officer can cross-reference your stolen items with reports filed by local pawn shops and by other law enforcement agencies in the area.

In the case of the woman who had her wallet stolen, because she did as the dispatcher told her and waited until the following Monday, too much time had elapsed. The trail was cold, and there was little hope of catching the thief. Insisting on action from a seemingly passive dispatcher can pay dividends.

As for the free-gas scam, Donnelly says victims should go ahead and file a report, but the potential for fraud is not actionable. In the case of scams, there’s not much to go on until there’s a victim. The best thing you can do is preventive—not give anyone your check, bank or credit card numbers.

So, the three cases really didn’t have a whole lot going for them. But how do the police know not to come to your house? That’s where the dispatcher comes in. He or she will ask questions in order to triage your call, so the officers in the field know whom they have to help first. An obnoxious barking dog will be given a lower priority than someone who hears someone walking around inside his or her home. As the threat of impending danger goes up, so does the level of priority.

So the police do care, but don’t blame them if they don’t get very excited about your tools being stolen if all you can offer them for a description is, “You know, wrenches and screwdrivers and stuff.” Clues like that make the success rate of solving burglaries less than 25 percent. Sometimes, though, you’ll have more information than you think, so don’t be afraid to insist on an officer coming to your home.

The best thing to do, of course, is keep your valuables and personal information in a place that crooks can’t or won’t go, like next to a rottweiler.