SEATTLE — Data shows Seattle recorded its lowest number of car break-ins in a decade last year, but the Seattle Police Department says the numbers aren’t telling the full story.
SPD says technical glitches with its online reporting portal have been kicking users back to the beginning of the multi-step process, with the concern that some are giving up and not reporting at all.
The department’s crime data, which is only available through November of last year, shows 8,326 car break-ins in 2022. It would need to spike significantly to get close to the next lowest number in a decade, which was 9,140 in 2020.
The neighborhood with the highest number of break-ins was Queen Anne at 695. Neighboring that is Magnolia, where professional photographer Rylea Foehl experienced her own car break-in at Discovery Park’s South Parking Lot.
“It doesn’t probably seem personal to them when they break into people’s stuff, but it’s personal,” Foehl told KIRO 7 after her car was broken into during a sunset photo shoot last fall.
Thieves smashed in her window, damaged her car, and stole thousands of dollars in photography equipment that had been hidden under a blanket behind one of the front seats. That included a laptop, lens, and a hard drive containing precious photographs of her children.
“I was literally getting ready to get into the front seat to drop my stuff off,” Foehl said. “And as I was doing that, I kind of glanced and saw that my window was completely gone.”
Glass was on the ground and inside her car, including in her child’s car seat.
“Normally, you would not have equipment in your car,” reporter Linzi Sheldon said.
“I had a shoot earlier in the day here in the city, so I decided to go to a coffee shop and kind of work and edit,” she explained. “So I had everything with me. I had my computer, I had my hard drive, I had extra things with me that I wouldn’t normally carry.”
Memory cards with her clients’ photos were safe. They were in her pocket, not in the car. But she had to replace her laptop so she could edit photos during her busiest time of the year: the holidays.
“It was definitely a hit [to the budget],” she said. “And we’re still waiting for insurance to reimburse.”
Foehl still hasn’t replaced the stolen lens.
“It’s frustrating, and you can’t help but get mad, you know?” she said.
KIRO 7 looked at last year’s numbers and found that after Queen Anne, the neighborhood with the second-highest number of break-ins is the Downtown/Commercial area at 544, followed by Capitol Hill at 445, and Northgate just behind it at 430.
When it comes to specific blocks, the 700 block of 1st Avenue led the way, with 87 thefts from cars in 2022.
Behind that was the 12200 block of Aurora Avenue North, with 65 car break-ins, and in third place was the 1500 block of 2nd Avenue with 40.
Seattle Police Sergeant John O’Neil met KIRO 7 in Interbay, which falls under the Queen Anne section, to ask him how to reduce the risk of thieves targeting a vehicle.
“It probably wasn’t a coincidence that that happened to her car,” he said of Foehl’s experience.
O’Neil said he wouldn’t be surprised if thieves were watching people in the parking lot, saw Foehl taking her cameras out of the vehicle, and decided to see what was left behind.
“If you cover it up and they can still see a lump, no, that’s probably not going to work because they’re going to say, ‘Hey, what’s underneath that?’” he said. “I try to put my stuff in the trunk before I get to the location… because if you put stuff in your trunk and somebody is watching, then yeah, they might say, ‘You know what? Let me see how far they go away. And then I’m going to smash a window, pop their trunk, get their stuff.’”
He said almost anything-- even charging cords-- can be tempting to a thief who can sell it or trade it.
“Winter hats, sunglasses, all those are tempting?” reporter Linzi Sheldon asked.
“Absolutely,” O’Neill said. “Jackets, sunglasses, coats, hats, you name it. To somebody else, that is value. That’s property.”
He also advises people to drive around an area before parking to scout it out, park in a well-lit area, and try to park near cameras. O’Neil revealed that thieves sometimes decide to target cars during heavy rain, which muffles or completely covers the sound of windows breaking.
But SPD is concerned there were more that may have gone unreported. Car break-ins are one of several crimes that can be reported through SPD’s online portal—that is if it’s working correctly.
“There are a few technical issues that we’ve been navigating and trying to fix,” SPD Chief Operating Officer Brian Maxey said. “Sometimes you’ll be entering a report, and you’ll get to a point. It will ask a question, and you try to answer it, and you find yourself back at the beginning of the report, which is understandably very frustrating to community members that are trying to report something.”
“And so the problem with that, right, is booting people back,” Sheldon said. “I would assume it’s the concern that people might not go through the process of filling it out again.”
“Absolutely right,” Maxey said. “If it’s too frustrating, it becomes a barrier.”
He said they are redoing the online portal by partnering with a company called Accenture. The project, he estimates, will cost between $1 million and $3 million.
Maxey describes it as a system that will be “user-friendly, easy to navigate, intuitive.”
“Perhaps most importantly, it will be available in 12 languages upfront,” he said, pointing to the fact that the current portal is only in English. “The way that will work on the back end is if you enter a crime report in your native language and we don’t have officers that speak that language, it will be translated into the final report with a notification that this was translated. It will also preserve the original in case we need it for court or for any other purpose to have that legitimate first cut at what happened in the native language.”
He said they are also looking at other possible solutions, like a chatbot for the online portal or even the option to live chat with an officer, and callback options for people who call the city’s non-emergency number. Maxey said about 15 percent of the time, those calls, which are routed to a separate call-answering entity from SPD known as the Community Safety and Communications Center, go unanswered and callers can’t leave a message.
Foehl said she would love to see security cameras at Discovery Park to try to deter thieves, but she will be back for photo shoots either way. And when she is, there will be nothing of value left in her car.
“I think everyone leaves something in their car out of convenience,” she said. “And you just really hope it doesn’t happen to you and you don’t think maybe it’s going to happen to you. And then in my situation, it did.”
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