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By Archie Ingersoll, Forum Communications Co., Published May 09 2010

Police map vandalism, break-in trends in Grand Forks

A garage egged, an iPod stolen from a car, a rock thrown through a picture window – police say these types of cases are tough to solve.

“They are very frustrating crimes,” said Lt. Rahn Farder of the Grand Forks Police Department. “Most of the time a victim isn’t targeted; it’s a crime of opportunity.”

To combat these less serious yet annoying crimes, the department has been trying something new. Since the first of the year, detectives have been tracking reports of thefts from vehicles and vandalism using databases and Google maps to spot trends and, ultimately, make arrests.

Much like pin maps of old, the computer maps are marked with arrows that show where crimes were committed. Sometimes the locations of crimes appear to be entirely random, but other times detectives can identify a cluster of a certain type of crime in a certain area. By studying reports of crimes, investigators can occasionally detect patterns in how, say, car windows are being broken and what items are being taken.

This sort of information is passed on to officers patrolling the streets so they can focus on particular areas and watch for specific types of crimes, said Farder, who heads the department’s investigations bureau.

Detective Travis Benson, who maintains the databases and maps the crimes, said the tracking system helped police catch two juveniles who used a pellet gun to shoot about 10 cars. However, the majority of crimes the department has tracked remain unsolved, Benson said. Farder said the department will continue tracking these crimes, but the long-term effectiveness of the system is not yet known.

In Grand Forks, there’s a constant stream of these sorts of crimes, but the numbers tend to increase during warm weather, Farder said. Sometimes they’re committed by a lone wolf, but often groups of juveniles or young adults are responsible. Benson said he believes several groups are active in the city.

Because these crimes often happen quickly or are committed by people driving by, police usually have to rely on a call from a witness if they’re going to nab a suspect.

“These kinds of crimes, we really need the public’s help in calling us,” Farder said.

Benson said thieves breaking into vehicles often steal electronic devices like portable music players, cameras, GPS units, stereos and speakers, along with cash and loose change. He advises residents to keep their valuables out of sight and to lock their doors.

He also suggests keeping a record of the serial numbers of electronic devices, so that if they are stolen and later recovered, they can be easily claimed.

Benson urges people to report thefts, “even the little stuff.”

“We recover property, and we don’t know where it goes because nobody reported it,” he said.

Archie Ingersoll is a writer for the Grand Forks Herald, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.