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Rash of police car break-ins in Wichita area causes concern

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Sunday, Feb. 19, 2012, at 7:18 a.m.
  • Updated Monday, Feb. 27, 2012, at 1:29 p.m.

Rod Page, special agent in charge with the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, remembers the sinking feeling one morning last June when he stepped outside his Wichita home and realized someone had broken into his undercover vehicle.

The thieves seemed prepared. They used bolt cutters to steal a semiautomatic rifle that had been locked in. They took binoculars used for aerial spotting.

Page learned from investigators that four other law enforcement agencies in surrounding counties had vehicles that had been hit around the same time. Authorities arrested some of the thieves, and Page knows of one who ended up in prison. They were “meth heads” targeting police vehicles for the valuable equipment inside, Page said.

A rash of thefts from cop cars in the Wichita region over the past year has raised concern in the law enforcement community.

“This has not happened in past years,” said Wichita police Deputy Chief Tom Stolz. “People would not break into cop cars,” equipped with things like body armor and special radios. “We don’t want any of this type of equipment to get out to the wrong hands,” Stolz said.

The Goddard police chief is one victim. A Kansas Highway Patrol lieutenant colonel is another.

Because of the thefts, the Butler County sheriff has decided to have any new sheriff’s cars equipped with alarm systems.

Wichita police have recorded about six law enforcement vehicle break-ins in the past year, said police Lt. Joe Cutcliff. The cars belonged to the Kansas Highway Patrol, Goddard police, KBI and Wichita police. Wichita police also heard of a series of burglaries last summer in Reno County, Cutcliff said.

Someone broke into about three unmarked Sedgwick County sheriff’s cars in the past year, said sheriff’s Lt. Jay McLaurian. Authorities caught a suspect who broke into a deputy’s car, McLaurian said. He said he didn’t know if the crimes were targeted or random, but he couldn’t recall three such burglaries ever occurring in a relatively short period before. He asked that anyone with information about the crimes call sheriff’s investigators at 316-660-5300 or Crime Stoppers, 316-267-2111.

To Page, the KBI agent, the thefts mean “there’s a market for stolen police property.”

Which is disturbing, law enforcement officials say, not only because of the loss of taxpayer-funded equipment – Page’s unmarked car sustained about $3,000 in damage and about $4,000 in property losses. The last thing police want is for their weapons or body armor to be used to commit crimes.

Page’s rifle hasn’t been recovered. He worries it could be used in a crime, and he wonders whether it might have been moved on the black market out of the country. The binoculars, bought with federal money aimed at eradicating meth, surfaced at a pawn shop.

In past years, Page said, “People did not target cops like this.” But as his case shows, he said, “they’re not afraid” now.

The public’s equipment

What’s not clear is how many of the thefts are related and the degree to which the vehicles are targeted or how many are “opportunity” crimes where thieves stumble upon a vehicle with valuable equipment.

At Baysingers Uniforms and Equipment, a Wichita business that caters to law enforcement customers, owner Brian Carduff said he would assume that someone stealing from a police car is selling the equipment on the black market or keeping it for themselves. Baysingers restricts its sales of body armor so it doesn’t fall into the wrong hands, Carduff said.

In many police jobs, especially those in rural areas or where officers are always on call and have to respond to emergencies, officers take their work vehicles home. Because of the need to respond quickly to emergencies, much of the equipment needs to remain in the vehicles, which are in effect mobile offices.

Between midnight and 6 one morning in November, someone broke into the marked car that Goddard Police Chief Sam Houston had outside his home. The thief or thieves busted a window on the car and took about $3,000 worth of equipment: protective vest, ammunition, handcuffs, leg irons, laptop computer, flashlight and Houston’s winter uniform coat and cap with insignia and department patches. His weapons remained, locked into the car.

“Those are the things we have in our cars to save the public,” he said of the stolen items.

“It just makes you shake your head and go, ‘Why?’ ”

Less than a week later, Wichita police arrested a couple of people who had Houston’s coat and hat in a vehicle.

In 35 years of law enforcement, Houston said, he had cars outside his home that had been egged or vandalized – but never broke into.

His neighbors seemed more upset than him, he said.

“They felt violated, and it was wrong. If they do that with a police car, what would they do with somebody else’s car? There was no respect.

“It’s not just our equipment; it’s the public’s equipment,” he said. When someone steals police equipment, the public pays twice, Houston said.

Alarms installed

On Jan. 9, Highway Patrol Lt. Col. Alan Stoecklein was attending a meeting at a Wichita office building in the 1900 block of North Amidon around 5 p.m. when someone smashed a back window of his unmarked unit, which was recognizable as a law enforcement vehicle because it had spotlights and emergency lights mounted inside. Someone grabbed equipment, including his coat with a badge, and ran.

The coat and badge haven’t been recovered.

“That’s unsettling to know that is out there,” that it could be used to impersonate an officer, Stoecklein said.

It was the first time in 32 years as a trooper that someone had burglarized his work car. Most highway patrol cars have alarms.

As a deterrent, Butler County Sheriff Kelly Herzet is having alarm systems installed in five new unmarked cars. Each alarm system costs $200, but it could help prevent the theft of thousands of dollars of equipment, Herzet said. The use of alarms comes in direct response to the thefts, he said.

It’s common for patrol cars to have not only shotguns but assault rifles now, as more agencies have become determined not to be outgunned by criminals, Herzet said. Officers typically take their handguns inside with them, but it’s not practical to remove shotguns and rifles when deputies need to be able to respond quickly to emergencies, he said.

Since the thieves raided Page’s KBI vehicle last summer, he has taken steps to prevent it from happening again.

“But it’s like Kelly (Herzet) said: You still have to be able to respond 24/7.”

Reach Tim Potter at 316-268-6684 or tpotter@wichitaeagle.com

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