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Melissa Block: From NPR News this is all things considered. I am Melissa Block.
Michele Norris: And I am Michele Norris. Burglary is one of the most mundane crimes. More than two million Americans are victims of burglaries every year. Even so that number’s a lot lower than it used to be. Over more than three decades most crimes have risen and fallen repeatedly but burglary has seen a steady decline. NPR’s Laura Sullivan tells us some of the reasons why.
Laura Sullivan: To figure out what happened to all the burglaries, you have to begin here. In an empty beige waiting room of one of Washington D.C.s parole offices. In a chair is a neatly dressed man waiting to see his probation officer.
Barry Mathis: My name is Barry Mathis, I was you know doing burglaries and things to support a habit.
Laura Sullivan: Mathis says for almost twenty years anything he stole; he could quickly turn into cash.
Barry Mathis: I was a salesman. I could sell anything you understand. I don’t care what it is. It could’ve been some toilet paper, I could sell it.
Laura Sullivan: But not anymore. Mathis says a few years ago he noticed things had changed.
Barry Mathis: If you’re gonna do a burglary or you gonna you gonna get something you need to have some buyers. You need to have somebody to buy you know. Now you know it’s everybody have everything now. I mean to me it’s not worth it, but I mean if you gonna get anything get some money, man. Heck with the appliances, heck with the boom boxes and all that.
Laura Sullivan: Most criminals it seems agree. Bank robberies, rape, assault, murder all spike from time to time, but not burglaries. For almost thirty straight years they’ve declined. Even any upticks are tiny. Mathis says there’s just too much on the street already. Everyone he knows already has a digital camera, I Pod knockoffs and pirated DVDs shipped in from China.
Barry Mathis: And if it’s not new a lot people don’t want to fool with it, and lot of people want stuff new, brand new in the box and all that so.
Laura Sullivan: Forget about last year’s video games, old laptops and Mathis says don’t even bring a VCR or boxy TV out to the street.
Barry Mathis: You can get a TV for nothing almost. People are giving them away now.
Laura Sullivan: Mathis has been clean for more than five years now since participating in an Offender program in D.C. called the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency or CSOSA. The program and the street economy may have turned Mathis’s life around, but criminologists say but when it comes to a 30-year drop in burglaries, there area a few other reasons behind the drop too. Big ones like the one million private police and security guards that work in residential communities.
Steve Southworth: We’re in a Southern Western Virginia where I work is Winter Green Resort.
Laura Sullivan: Steve Southworth is a private police officer.
Steve Southworth: We’re on the Appalachian trail right where it crosses Reeds Gap, mile marker 13.5 on the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Laura Sullivan: Winter Green Resort is a community of fancy vacation homes sprawled out on the snowy mountain below. The residents here pay for his salary and for his car and for the lodge lake police headquarters with eleven other police officers. Residents say the cost is worth it especially when a burglar hiked right past where Southworth is standing.
Steve Southworth: He came in off the trail which runs very close to Wintergreen and within two days ending up breaking into four homes.
Laura Sullivan: Southworth spends six months tracking the mans path, from New York down to Wintergreen.
Steve Southworth: We actually intercepted an e-mail that he sent and through some things that were said in the internet we were able to zero in on his location a little closer.
Laura Sullivan: So where did you finally catch him?
Steve Southworth: It was in Macon, Georgia.
Laura Sullivan: All that to catch one burglar. That would have been unheard of in his former job as a county police officer just outside Richmond, Virginia.
Steve Southworth: I wouldn’t have had the time. Here the crime is considerably less and it gave me time to concentrate on this case. This was the most major case at the time.
Laura Sullivan: In the past remote communities like this one far from state police were ripe for thieves, but since residents started paying their own private officers, crime dropped 70 percent, and many of the residents also did something else. They installed burglar alarms. One in four homes nationwide now has one. Add that to an explosion in other devices like steel bars, stronger doors, security glass, and criminologists say homes are just more of a hassle to break into. Even the most basic anti-burglary device has undergone major changes since the 1970’s.
Ron Bunnag: Good Locks make all the difference.
Laura Sullivan: Locksmith Ron Bunnag is huddled in the back of his van rekeying a condominium lock in Alexandria, Virginia.
Ron Bunnag: This is Assa. It’s got a second set of cuts down the side, and then this is what I use on my house, this is Medeco. Looks like a normal key both sides, but when you look down at the cuts you noticed how they’re cut at an angle. There is a 98 percent chance that says you can’t pick it.
Laura Sullivan: Keys are more intricate, even electronic. The 1970’s also saw the wide spurt introduction of the dead bolt, but the biggest change when it comes to locks criminologist say is that people started using them. Of course police will tell you burglaries have gone down because they police better. There is no way to know if police are preventing burglaries but they’re certainly not catching many burglars. According to the Justice Department, police solve fewer burglaries than any other crime, around one in ten. They’re more likely to catch a car thief than a burglar and that’s something William Long always appreciated. In twenty years as a burglar he only got caught a few times, but he never enjoyed the work.
William Long: It’s definitely no fun. It’s stressful, strenuous, tiresome.
Laura Sullivan: Long lives now on a quiet street in D.C. with his wife. As he walks down his own block he still separates in his head the inviting houses from the ones he would have passed over.
William Long: All these got black iron gates, wood is easier than iron ain’t it. I mean some cases.
Laura Sullivan: He says he didn’t care much about alarms or locks or police patrols. He says he was no cat burglar; he just looked for open doors and windows.
William Long: If you got somebody who really want go in something, nothing can stop them, I don’t think.
Laura Sullivan: His biggest problem, people don’t seem to keep cash in their houses anymore. Everyone uses credit cards and bank cards, only diamonds have any real payoff and he says they take too long to find.
William Long: There’s no future in it. It’s a headache for you.
Laura Sullivan: Recently, Long had something stolen from him. He was devastated when a thief stole a brand new video camera from his car. It isn’t the camera he misses. He knows where to get a new one for just a few dollars. It’s the tape inside he wants with footage of his dying step-father.
William Long: They could’ve had the camera, just give me that film. I want that film of that moment we had and that’s pretty much it.
Laura Sullivan: Do you ever wonder if you took something sentimental that belonged to somebody else?
William Long: I never thought of it that way. Never thought of it that way.
Laura Sullivan: Long stepped back inside his house to grab his janitor’s uniform before heading to work. On his way out he stopped on the front porch and locked his door. Laura Sullivan, NPR news.
Melissa Block: This is NPR National Public Radio.