Chattanooga police say car burglaries are on the rise in East Brainerd and they're reminding residents there — and across the city — to be vigilant.
Criminals will walk through neighborhoods, pulling car door handles and looking for anyone who left their cars unlocked so they can nab anything of value.
Emerald LeShea lives in the Tyner area and has been a victim of two burglaries: one in 2015 and one this March.
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She was tired after a long shift at work that day in March, so she locked her car without grabbing her belongings, went inside and straight to bed.
The next day, she awoke to find someone had broken into her car and gone through her glove compartment. Her purse and camera were gone.
"I broke down," she said.
The thought of having to replace her documents all over again was overwhelming, and her camera was a Christmas present from her parents. It contained pictures for work and from a recent vacation.
But she admits she shouldn't have left her belongings in her car.
"[It was] my fault for leaving it in my car," she said with a laugh.
Police have already made several arrests in connection with auto burglaries in the Brainerd and East Brainerd area, Chattanooga police auto burglary investigator Brad Brown said. One investigation involves a crime ring run by several people who were arrested last year in connection to multiple auto burglaries across the city.
But despite the arrests, East Brainerd residents are still taking to Facebook to express their frustration and warn others.
"Both of our vehicles were broken into last night," wrote one resident in a closed Facebook group. "Second time in two months they've been through our neighborhood."
Others shared their own experiences and sightings of potential thieves, some with screenshots from home surveillance cameras.
Auto burglary isn't a crime unique to East Brainerd. Areas across the city are affected, especially during the summer and holidays.
It's often a crime of opportunity, and investigators face a number of challenges, Brown said.
The sheer amount of reports can be overwhelming sometimes, he said. And there's often a lack of evidence, people who don't file a report and victims who decline prosecution.
"If we discover offenders who are breaking into several vehicles where the victims decline prosecution, we cannot charge them and they are likely to keep committing auto burglaries," Brown said.
But despite those challenges, police still make a number of arrests, he said. And it's a good mix between repeat and first-time offenders.
"We take out warrants and arrest individuals who commit auto burglaries on a weekly basis," Brown said.
For example, just this week, Brown charged three people in connection to auto burglaries in North Chattanooga, two others who were burglarizing cars at Erlanger downtown, and he's is in the process of busting an auto burglary ring with at least four suspects involved. His partner is also working to obtain warrants for auto burglaries in the downtown area, East Chattanooga and along Rossville Boulevard.
When it comes to recovering stolen items, it can sometimes be difficult unless the suspect is caught red-handed with the stolen items.
"Items that are taken from a vehicle can be sold on the street, exchanging hands several times with no way to track the items," Brown said. " This is especially true for guns."
But just because it's difficult to recover stolen property doesn't mean it's a rare occurrence. A lot of times, police recover items in bulk during an arrest or traffic stop because the perpetrators store items to use or sell at a later time.
When that happens, it's getting the items back to the rightful owners that can become a problem because people don't always file a report, Brown said.
"I have found that several people do not file a report, especially [when] a door is left unlocked and there is no damage to the vehicle where an insurance company requires a police report," he said.
Filing a report is the first thing Brown said people should do to help police in their investigation.
"We have no way of knowing — unless through recovered property — that an auto burglary even occurred without it being reported," he said.
Adding detailed contact information, including an email address, is also helpful.
" ... An email helps for us to get in contact due to victims who are unable to answer the phone, where I have found several who do not have a voicemail set up or their voicemail is full," he said.
Give as much detail as possible when reporting stolen items, including make, model, size, color, serial number and any identifying marks. And don't be afraid to call back and add more information to a report even after it's been filed.
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