SAN MARCOS — In just more than a half-hour, a team of two senior patrol officers placed 45 “next victim” notices on the windshields of vehicles parked at the Grand Plaza shopping mall at Las Posas Road on Nov. 17, after spotting valuables left inside that could possibly result in a vehicle break-in.
For the past five years, the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department’s senior patrol in San Marcos has devoted time each weekday to stopping at local retail centers as part of the Next Victim Program, according to Al Schmitt, acting administrator and 12-year senior patrol officer with the San Marcos department.
“We call it the Next Victim Program and we’re trying to prevent people from becoming the next victim of a crime,” he said.
It is also referred to as holiday watch during the busy Christmas season, and the program relates specifically to helping prevent burglaries or theft from vehicles.
“Vehicle break-ins are a problem,” Schmitt said.
The popularity of electronic portable devices, music players, DVD players and navigation systems also seem to add to the lure.
“People are now breaking in for a GPS,” he said.
Other items, such as cell phones, briefcases and packages also make the list of goods stolen from vehicles, Schmitt said.
“It’s a crime of opportunity if there are valuables visible and windows are open,” he said.
But even locked cars can become targets.
When people leave valuables inside, they are leaving themselves vulnerable to a break-in, Schmitt said.
“Even though a car is locked, a crook with a Slim Jim can probably get inside in a couple of seconds,” he said.
On Nov. 17, Schmitt led the team of two senior volunteers as they walked through rows of cars parked at stores including Nordstrom Rack, Ulta, Bed Bath & Beyond and Sports Chalet.
The volunteers were armed with notices that read: Attention, are you the next victim?
The notices included a list of observations that could present an opportunity to a criminal, such as valuables left in plain sight, vehicle left unlocked, keys left in vehicle, vehicle left running and unattended, children or animals left in vehicle, vehicle left in poorly lighted area and window left open.
If an observation was made, the box next to it was marked and the notice was placed on the vehicle.
“I found another purse,” said Al Biener, senior volunteer, as he peered inside a vehicle’s window.
He put a Next Victim notice on that car and said it was the fourth purse he had spotted so far that day.
He said that one time after he found a purse inside of a car and placed a notice, that the woman who owned the purse had approached her car as he was nearby.
He said he reminded the woman that it wasn’t a good idea to leave her purse in the car, but she didn’t think it was a big deal because she had her wallet with her.
“I told her that the bad guys don’t know that,” Beiner said.
Julie Fitzpatrick, senior volunteer, was also observing vehicles’ contents, and found a Kia left unlocked in the parking lot.
She also found a large bag full of makeup left inside of one car, and golf clubs in another.
A planner, iPod, sunglasses, keys, backpacks, purses and filled shopping bags are some other things she located in cars and left notices for.
“During the holidays people have more stuff in the car with them,” Fitzpatrick said.
She said she saw that in one car there was a package on the seat that was ready to be posted.
Debra Avila came back to her car to find a notice on the windshield that warned against leaving valuables inside.
There were a few items that appeared to be hidden underneath a dash cover that was on the passenger-side floor.
She said the items were only a water bottle and gym towel, but appreciated what the senior patrol volunteers were doing to remind people about burglary break-ins.
“I think it’s a good reminder. I think in a busy schedule we can forget,” she said.
Michelle Tuttle, a student, was surprised to see a notice on her car.
She had received one for a backpack left in sight on the backseat.
“It just has books in it and just a binder,” she said.
But she said the notice-program was a good idea.
She also said that once her mother’s car had been burglarized in her own driveway, and that a car cell phone charger and some coins were stolen from it.
By the end of the parking lot shift, Fitzpatrick and Beiner had placed 45 notices on vehicles.
Schmitt said that was a high number, and that the last time the notices were handed out on his shift they only counted 12.
Alfred Stumpfhauser, crime analyst at the San Marcos Sheriff’s Department, said that theft from vehicles and vehicle burglaries have been a focus for the department throughout this past year.
“Early on we were looking at three or four different locations that seem to be hot spots for vehicle burglaries,” he said.
The locations were identified during the first half of the year, and the senior volunteers were sent to those hot spots to put the potential victim notices out there, he said.
The program has proved to be valuable in reducing the number of thefts or vehicle break-ins from those areas.
“I looked at those same hot spots — they’re not hot spots any longer the second half of this year,” Stumpfhauser said.
The three areas the senior patrol visit regularly include the Grand Plaza, Old California Restaurant Row and the Best Buy shopping center, both of which are located on San Marcos Boulevard.
“The burglaries are there because the opportunity is there. If there was nothing to be gained by casing cars they (burglars) wouldn’t do it,” Schmitt said.