Police have noted these recent burglary tactics:
• Knocking on the door loudly to see if anyone is home. If not, the burglar's partners break in the back as he or she sits in the car on lookout.
• Scouting neighborhoods for signs of items to steal, such as empty cardboard TV boxes on the curb awaiting trash pickup.
• When someone answers a knock at the door, the burglar may ask if the resident needs work done, such as landscaping or gutters cleaned, or may say they've got the wrong address or need to use the phone. Often, investigators said, the person is peeking into the home, scanning for items to steal.
* If these incidents occur, call police immediately.
Source: Chattanooga Police Department
Where the public sees black and white, police can find a lot of gray.
Chattanooga police property crimes investigators look into all types of robberies weekly or even daily. Recently, residential robberies, dubbed "home invasions" by much of the media, have grabbed public attention.
But the public perception of a home invasion - residents are minding their own business inside their home when a gun-wielding intruder bursts through the door to rob them - is rarely what really happens, police say.
"You never really know until you sit down and start interviewing the witnesses whether it's a dope house, whether it's a family member gone berserk or who knows," said Sgt. Steve Baker.
The difficulty often lies in what can be learned, and then what can be shared with the public about an open investigation, officers said.
Baker, Sgt. Scott Bales and Lt. Bobby Rodgers have more than 60 years combined law enforcement experience. All work in property crimes.
They estimated that fewer than 20 percent of the residential robberies reported to police are home invasions in which a criminal enters a random home.
Rodgers cautioned that everyone should take safety precautions such as locking doors, talking with neighbors and staying aware of their surroundings.
But he said it's highly unlikely that an average person going about his daily life with no criminal entanglements would become the target of a home invasion.
Residential robberies are always crimes, but police say the victims often are targeted because they handle large amounts of cash and are known around the neighborhoods to have money on hand. Sometimes when a street-level drug dealer cheats someone, the victim will retaliate by coming after the cheater.
It complicates matters even more, the officers said, when victims don't tell the whole story. They'll leave out details about the robber for fear of further retaliation or lie about their part in a crime that could connect them to the suspect.
"(Lying) makes it more difficult, but at the same time a seasoned investigator can recognize that up front," Bales said.
Faulty logic or shifting details may be signs that a victim isn't telling the whole story.
Of 70 reported home robberies this year, six were unfounded, meaning they didn't actually happen or were falsely reported. Twenty-eight were suspended, meaning there is no new evidence or not enough evidence to prove the case unfounded.
Gary Ball, president of the Ridgedale Neighborhood Association, said in his 15 years working with the community he has seen home robberies that could have been avoided and many that the "neighborhood pipeline" found suspicious.
Two men were shot and wounded during a robbery at a home in the 2300 block of East 14th Street on Wednesday. The victims told police they had just returned from the store when a pair of gunmen came into the house demanding money.
One of the victims, James Green, said he didn't recognize the man who shot him. But he suspected the intruders thought he and the other victim, Vincent Hayes, had money because they sold concessions out of a van parked in front of the house.
Ball said he had complained to the city zoning department about the sales months ago when he noticed groups of people congregating at the house.
"If that guy is selling goods out there, he's got cash. I'm not saying he's involved in anything else," Ball said. But, he added, "It's not like they're Captain Kangaroo and Mr. Green Jeans. They're part of the problem down there."
NOT ALL RANDOM
Random home invasions do happen, and police often can spot those crimes quickly by sharing information and noticing patterns.
At least one high-profile local case this year -- a string of residential robberies on the North Shore -- showed the characteristics of random home invasions.
"It raises the hair on the back of our necks that this is going to be an ongoing problem if we don't get it stopped," Baker said.
By pooling investigators, targeting areas of town and spotting patterns in some of the reported crimes, police arrested Ricky L. Davis less than a month after most of the crimes began.
Davis was charged in mid-July in connection with the residential robberies. He also was connected to crimes in Hixson and eventually was charged with one count of attempted premeditated first-degree murder, two counts of aggravated robbery, two counts of aggravated burglary, two weapons charges and two theft charges.
Davis is in custody at the Hamilton County Jail, and his case was bound over to the Hamilton County grand jury in August, according to court documents.
Though Davis is charged with violent crimes, Rodgers said that in his experience most burglars don't want to confront a person; many are not even armed.
"The majority of the time somebody breaks into a house," he said, "if somebody comes out of the room, the burglar books."