’Tis the Season for One of the Most Underreported Crimes

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Package thefts aren’t a new problem for police departments, some of which are using creative tactics in order to nab “porch pirates.”

As Americans turn more and more to online shopping, many communities have seen increases in package thefts. Scroll through many neighborhood Facebook and Nextdoor groups, and you’ll see reports of packages being swiped from front steps. In some cases, local residents might post photos of possible stolen property abandoned on the side of the road near a ripped-open cardboard box.

In local news reports, you’re likely seeing stories about theft protection and police making arrests. In Harford County, Maryland, for instance, police recently arrested a 46-year-old man who allegedly had his five-year-old daughter swipe packages off front porches. Then there’s former NASA engineer Mark Rober recently published a YouTube video of how he created bait packages that deployed a glitter bomb and fart spray on unsuspecting “porch pirates,” as they’re sometimes known.

While package theft, especially this time of year, is not a new problem for local law enforcement agencies, it is one that police are acutely aware of.   

“What you might be seeing is a peak of frustration in the community,” said Jason Jimenez, a public information officer for the Elk Grove Police Department in California. “Police and law enforcement agencies are hearing them.”

Elk Grove, a Sacramento-area suburb, was in the news earlier this month when the police department posted a Facebook warning to would-be package thieves:

A word of advice for package thieves…. think twice before grabbing a package from someone’s porch. You may be grabbing an EGPD bait package. Starting today, we will be conducting undercover operations along with bait package deployments throughout the city, during various days and times, in an effort to combat package theft.

Elk Grove isn’t the only city where police have used decoy packages. St. Paul, Minnesota has been using decoys recently. Shortly after police in Jersey City, New Jersey deployed decoy packages, law enforcement made easy arrests in short time.

In Piqua, Ohio, police have a decoy program that involves tracking equipment.  “We know our citizens appreciate some of our previous decoy efforts, and we think we will find some citizens that will want to participate with this program,” Police Chief Bruce Jamison told Piqua Daily Call this week.

But leaving out decoy packages don’t necessarily mean that package thieves will take the bait.

Jimenez told Route Fifty on Wednesday that the decoy package effort launched last week in Elk Grove has not yet led to an arrest. But with all the publicity around the fake packages, “there is a big benefit as a deterrent,” he said, though one that is hard to quantify.  

Something else that’s hard to quantify: the extent of package theft. Incidents aren’t extensively reported in many places.

“It’s very important,” Jimenez said. “The fact is that package theft is one of the most underreported crimes we see.” Unreported package thefts can give police an incomplete picture of the incidents happening in a community.

“Without that data, it doesn’t make it impossible” for police to reduce package thefts and other crimes in their communities, “but it makes it more difficult,” Jimenez said. “That’s where we rely on the community’s eyes and ears.”  

Michael Grass is Executive Editor of Route Fifty and is based in Seattle.

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