Crime & Courts

How to keep home safe

Wichita police Officer Joe Seitz inspects people's homes and tells them how they can make their dwellings less vulnerable to crime. In a recent home-security survey, Seitz starts at a woman's front door because burglars usually break in there. A burglar doesn't want to draw suspicion, so he will walk up to the front door, trying to blend in.

"Most of your neighbors will see that as a legitimate person," Seitz tells the woman. "We say that criminals like to hide in the wide open."

The woman let an Eagle reporter and photographer follow Seitz during his inspection. She said she is concerned about a rise in burglaries and wants to learn whether her home is secure.

Through November, Wichita police recorded 2,839 residential burglaries, a 10.2 percent increase over the same period last year. Nearly 14 percent of the burglaries occurred while residents were home.

In some recent burglaries in College Hill and Eastborough, burglars sneaked in while residents slept upstairs.

"I just want to make sure I'm safe as I possibly can be," the woman said.

For her security, she asked not to be identified.

How a burglar works

Back at the front door, Seitz continues to explain a burglar's thinking.

A burglar will ring the bell or knock on the door to see whether anyone is home.

"Most burglars don't want contact with people," he said.

If someone answers, the burglar might say, "Is Steve here?" Then he says he must have the wrong house before moving on to the next target.

If you are home, Seitz said, don't open the door but make it obvious that you are home, by turning on a light or making a noise or talking through the door: "Who is it?"

A burglar who gets no response will try to kick the door open.

Part of a sound defense is a dead-bolt lock. But a dead bolt is only as good as the screws and strike plate used to secure it to the door frame. The screws should be long enough — about 3 inches — to reach the stud framework of the house.

If the screws aren't long enough, the frame splinters and the door flies open when an intruder kicks it. A 13-year-old can kick open a door, Seitz said.

Seitz recommends what's called a high-security strike plate.

The woman's door is sufficiently stout and has a properly installed dead bolt, screws and strike plate.

Layers of safety

Another thing people overlook is the importance of locking the screen door or storm door. If you open your front door and find the wrong person standing outside, a locked screen door can give you enough time to take defensive measures, Seitz said.

"Security's all about layers,'' he said.

"Try to make sure you know what's out there before you open the door."

Always have a phone handy in case you need to call for help.

Another thing to remember: As much as you want to lock the bad guys out, don't lock yourself in so you or young children can't escape in a fire.

If your door has security bars that are too high for a child to reach from the inside, or you have double locks that require a key from the inside but the key is not easily accessible, it could be deadly in a fire.

Home security systems are good but have limitations, Seitz said. An alarm system must be turned on. It only notifies someone of trouble and limits the time a burglar stays inside.

Some people feel so overly secure with their alarm systems, they stop locking doors, he said.

'The Achilles heel'

It's time for Seitz to check the sliding back door —"typically the Achilles heel," he said.

Many sliding glass doors can be easily lifted out of the track.

Fold-down bars on the inside help but don't always prevent doors from being forced open. Burglars tend not to break the glass because it draws too much attention, Seitz said.

The woman has spent $2,500 on a sliding glass door that has auxiliary locks and a key rubber stop at the top of the door that prevents it from being lifted up and pushed in.

Seitz estimates that only 1 percent of the sliding glass doors he sees are as secure as this one.

A path for a burglar

He then walks into the kitchen to check the door to the garage.

Most people don't lock the door from their house to their attached garage.

"Treat the garage door just like a front or back door," Seitz said. Use a dead bolt. Lock it.

Often, a burglar can step quickly from a garage into a kitchen and grab a purse and keys sitting nearby.

The woman's purse and keys are lying visible on a counter just inside the door. Tuck keys and purses away, he said.

In the garage, he notices that a door leading to the backyard doesn't have a dead bolt.

Securing the garage

A common mistake is leaving keys in a vehicle.

A burglar's dream is to find a homeowner on vacation and their vehicle in the garage. The burglar can take his time loading up the vehicle with stolen goods.

If you are away for an extended time, put a padlock through one of the holes in the garage door rail, Seitz advises, and don't leave your bolt cutters in sight.

In many cases, burglars are your neighbors, he said. They know when you are gone.

"It's too bad," he said.

Don't forget to lock

Seitz rattles off more basic security measures: Be diligent about keeping doors locked, when you walk next door, when you do yard work.

He cites a common ruse that burglars use with senior citizens: The burglars work in pairs. One approaches a resident outside and distracts him while the other slips inside.

When Seitz checks the woman's windows, he notes that they have good double locks and factory-installed pins that allow the windows to be opened slightly for fresh air but not pushed fully open from the outside.

Burglars also can get in second-story windows, he said. "Burglars have no problems getting on the roof."

Don't leave your ladder so a burglar can easily use it.

Securing basement

When Seitz heads down to the basement, he notes that a daylight window grate has been retrofitted with a locking mechanism that can be reached only from inside, to allow for escape during a fire. Often, burglars simply lift the grate and hop down to the window.

In the basement laundry room, he notices that a smaller window looks less secure.

One option is mounting a plastic bubble over a small, ground-level basement window or planting a thorny bush close to the window — anything to discourage or slow down a burglar.

What a burglar sees

The inspection moves to the exterior.

Seitz tells people to walk out, look back at their house and ask themselves: What is the house telling a burglar approaching from the street?

Small things can be telling. A single chair on a porch says someone lives alone.

"I tell them, 'Put two chairs out here,' " he said.

At the curb, his eyes sweep the front of the house.

Turn on exterior lights at night, he said. Install long-lasting light bulbs.

The woman has floodlights over her driveway, which would help her spot anybody lurking around.

Out back

In the backyard, Seitz sees that the shed is secured with a padlock. Sheds contain plenty of valuable items.

Near a back door, he points out that a burglar could easily reach into an open light globe and quickly twist off a light and darken the area.

"Never thought about that one," the woman said.

Still, he said, "Not much on this house you can pick at....

"You're really ahead of the curve."

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