Noe Valley Voice September 1997

Breaking Into Car Ownership In the City

By Erin O'Briant

Four months ago, after a painful year and a half on public transit, I gave in and bought a car.

The new-to-us '88 Honda Civic had some paint chipped off the hood, a dent in the fender, dings on the doors, and a missing hood ornament, but the car was cheap and still running, and certainly preferable to a life of waiting for Muni. It also was small enough to squeeze into a few spaces on Fair Oaks Street.

Within a week I was driving three blocks to the corner store and guiltily loving every minute of it. That was March.

Four break-ins later, it's August. And I shrink at the memory of the first attempt on my car's life:

My girlfriend Marlene and I left the house one morning at 5:45 a.m., so that I could drive her to work and keep the car. As we shut the front gate, she pointed to the car and yelled, "Erin! Look! Look!"

Like most people, I was fuzzy-headed and cranky at that hour. I admit it: The first thing I felt was irritation that she was talking so loudly. She had to put my nose three inches in front of the smashed wing window before I realized what had happened.

I thought I knew what to do. First, I drove Marlene to work, despite the damaged car. When I got home, I covered the hole with a red plastic Nordstrom Rack shopping bag and scotch tape. Finally, I called the police so they could get started on their investigation.

Oddly, the guys at Mission Police Station (which covers Noe Valley between 21st and Cesar Chavez) didn't seem to want to investigate. Nothing was stolen, there were no witnesses, it wasn't a hate crime. They suggested I file a report "if you want to," adding that I could do it over the phone. Then they transferred my call.

But the folks at Teleserve, the telephone reporting service, said, sorry, they couldn't file my report. I should come down to Mission Station on Valencia Street if I wanted to report the break-in. Recognizing a good runaround when I heard one, I hung up dejectedly.

That night I removed the tattered Nordstrom bag from the window, figuring your average criminal might view a bag taped over the window as an invitation to "come in and browse." If I left the window bare, it would look more like the glass was still in place.

The next morning Marlene drove herself to work and called me when she arrived. "You won't believe this," she said. "I drove halfway to work with the back door flapping in the breeze. Somebody broke in again last night, and they left it open."

The would-be thief (again, they apparently couldn't find anything to steal) had entered the car through the hole where the wing window had been busted out the night before.

With no additional damage done and nothing stolen, I decided to skip talking to the cops this time. Marlene, cleverer than I, used packing tape to secure a thick piece of cardboard over the hole (which remains there to this day because the glass company wants $150 to replace a window the size of a handkerchief...a different story).

After a few weeks, just as Marlene and I were telling ourselves the break-ins had been a fluke, it happened again. This time someone pulled the rubber strip out from around the driver's-side window, pried it open, and unlocked the door. They took the car's registration (which still had the previous owner's name on it), proof of insurance (on which my name was misspelled), and a cherished dance tape that included my all-time favorite, "Disco Inferno."

Incredibly, the day after the third break-in, the correct registration and insurance card came in the mail, leading me to believe that despite three break-ins in six weeks and the loss of "Disco Inferno," the automotive gods were still smiling upon us and our dented, dinged, windowless, hood-ornament-less, paint-chipped, and driver's-side-rubber-thing-less car.

At this point, I called Officer Lois Perillo, a Noe Valley police officer and regular contributor to the Noe Valley Voice (I'm not above pulling strings). Officer Perillo advised me that the best thing to do was form a SAFE (Safety Awareness For Everyone) group with my neighbors. We could all watch out for one another's cars and report any suspicious activities.

That sounded like a good idea -- and I still might do it -- but I really wanted the cops to take care of the watching part, so that I didn't have to spend the wee hours of the morning standing on my balcony waiting for a criminal to strike.

I didn't know what else to do, so I tried not to think about it for a while.

But several weeks after the third break-in, I felt brave enough to try reporting the incidents to the police again. The folks at Mission Station assured me that Teleserve could indeed file my report over the phone and again offered to transfer my call. Seven minutes later, a dispatcher answered, and he in turn transferred me to Teleserve. After an endless 19 minutes on hold, an officer answered my call and offered to take my report.

She reeled off a string of questions: what type of car was it, where was it parked, what was taken. During the entire conversation, the officer showed not a smidgen of sympathy for my ordeal. As the phone call was winding down, I asked if she knew why it had taken a full 26 minutes for me to get through to Teleserve.

She explained, again unsympathetically, that Mondays were especially busy because Teleserve was closed over the weekend and that fewer officers were on duty because it was the lunch hour. (Actually, it wasn't the lunch hour when I called, but 26 minutes later it was just past noon.) But at least I had done my (Honda) Civic duty and reported the break-in.

I called Officer Perillo again, this time on her day off. She graciously explained a few things that eased my mind, if not about the car thieves running loose on the streets, at least about how the police had handled my complaint.

"If someone leaves their car at, say, 11 o'clock at night and then comes out at 8 in the morning and it's been broken into, even if there are fingerprints in the car of someone who is known to do this type of break-in, that still doesn't prove anything," Officer Perillo said. "Also, even fingerprints in the car could have come from somebody else during the course of the night.

"So that's why an officer doesn't come out unless the crime just occurred or unless there is a witness or some other type of evidence," she continued. "But it's important to report break-ins because they allow the police to form a map of where auto boosts are happening. That's how they allocate patrols and resources."

And she assured me I was not alone. While her Noe Valley beat generally experiences about 15 to 20 car break-ins a month, the numbers were 36 in June and 34 in July. Four people were arrested. (With statistics like that, I'm expecting to see a few more cop cars cruising Fair Oaks Street in the months ahead. Keep your eyes peeled.)

After Officer Perillo explained the situation, I felt better. Maybe it's not that the cops don't care. It's that there's not much they can do about break-ins like mine.

Just as I was finishing up this story, secure in the knowledge that bad things happen in threes and that I was not due for another break-in until the year 2000, the car vandal(s) struck again. They broke in through the cardboard window Marlene had put up, and ransacked the glove compartment, lifting a freesia sachet and a half-empty box of Kleenex.

Here we go again. But this time I won't call the San Francisco Police Department anywhere near the lunch hour.

Oh, and the window? My father, who lives in Athens, Georgia, found a replacement window at a junkyard there and is mailing it to me.... Now if I can just figure out how to get it in.

Fun Facts About Auto Break-Ins

+ Cool people, like cops and criminals, refer to car break-ins as "auto boosts."

+ The police officers in charge of catching the auto boosters are called the "Auto Detail."

+ There are three main groups of auto boosters:
1. People who are looking for something to sell.
2. Folks who break into your car just for the thrill of it.
3. Gangs initiating new members. You'll know by the attractive graffiti they leave in your car.

+ Five things you can do to prevent the boosters from getting you next time:
1. If you have a garage, put your car in it. Hello?!
2. If you have fancy stuff like portable stereos and cell phones, don't leave them lying around in your car. Buy a car stereo that has a removable face plate.
3. If you can find parking, choose a space in a well-lit area without overhanging trees.
4. If you can afford it, get a silent alarm that pages you when it's activated. (Don't even think about getting one of those alarms that wails with every passing motorcycle. Your neighbors will kill you.)
5. If all else fails, ditch the car. Try biking or walking. Or get back on Muni.