The sport of stealing

A rash of "smash and grab" break-ins at Memorial Park put joggers & bikers in crime's crosshairs

A rash of "smash and grab" break-ins at Memorial Park put joggers & bikers in crime's crosshairs

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When you head to Memorial Park for your daily dose of exercise, is this what you expect to find when you return?
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A typical "smash and grab" job involves the perpetrator taking what they can through the busted window of your vehicle, and driving off as quickly as possible.
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Is it too risky to leave your car unattended at Memorial Park while you work out? Photo by Shelby Hodge
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When you make your way to Memorial Park, you're usually on a mission — a fitness mission. Whether it's to ride your bike on the Picnic Loop or stretch your legs on the Seymour Lieberman Exercise Trail, there's something outdoorsy for everyone at Houston's largest inner Loop green space.

Especially if your sport is breaking into vehicles.

If you're a regular at the park, then this isn't news to you. Recurrent robberies  — colloquially referred to by frequenters as "smash and grabs" — have taken place at Memorial Park for . . . awhile.

 "All calls are coded by priority. Burglary, which isn't a threat to life, is coded low, and if the officers are on a higher priority . . ." 

Maybe that's vague, but no one's quite sure how long they've been going on. But if you ask any mountain bikers or nature trail lovers emerging from the bike trails while you're stuck staring at the smashed window of your own vehicle, you'll get the standard response: "We know."

At least, that's what Michelle Watson experienced when her car was broken into — around 3 p.m. on a Tuesday in late November.

"I opened the passenger front seat to put my dog in, and I noticed I could see daylight through the back window," said Watson. "I realized the bottom half of the window was not there."

When she saw a group of off-road bikers heading back to the parking lot from the trails, she informed them that her car was just broken into. "They said, 'Oh yeah, this has been going on for a couple of months.'"

The space between

The riders Watson consulted knew exactly how the crime had been committed, too. "They told me that what [the criminals] do is they pull in between two cars if there's space, the passenger gets out, smashes the window, reaches in, grabs whatever they can, and they take off," Watson.

When it was all said and done, Watson will be out around $600. "I called the police, but they didn't send an officer out. They took the information, and they said we'll have an officer call you back. They called me back about an hour later. I was there for 45 minutes and I didn't see a police officer on a bike, on a motorcycle, or in a car at all."

Stuck on the same refrain

Biking enthusiast Josh Thompson had a similar tale to tell. "My car was broken into around noon on September 15," he said. "I was mountain biking, and was one of only two cars in the parking lot. They took my daughter's diaper bag, which looked like a laptop bag."

Another middle-of-the-day robbery? We're sensing a pattern here.

"They just broke the window and pulled it out off the back seat. They didn't even open the door," Thompson said. "My back passenger window was broken."

What are you going to do?

It seems as if the Memorial Park diehards have simply learned to tolerate the constant threat to the security of their belongings by now.

But why? Some cite what they perceive to be a general apathy exhibited by a police department with a lot of crime to deal with in a huge city. Juxtaposed with their desire to continue to enjoy Memorial Park, Houstonians seeking the great outdoors simply  . . .  put up with it.

"I didn't file a police report, because I've done that before when my bike was stolen," Thompson said. "It didn't help then, even though the bike was more valuable and had a serial number."

Watson's experience echoes the same sentiment. "They called me back about an hour later," she said. "They made it sound like it would be impossible to figure out who did it, and because there was nothing of value stolen, there was a likelihood that it would go in the unsolved category."

It's on you?

So that's it? Case closed?

"It's the most easily preventable crime there is," said Kese Smith, public information officer at the Houston Police Department. "It starts with citizens locking their vehicles and hiding their belongings."

We all know that. But in an increasingly mobile society, many times, it isn't an option to drop your valuables at home before visiting Memorial Park — as thieves are well aware.

"We've issued a number of initiatives to educate the public, including signage and burglary of motor vehicles (BMV) report cards, " Smith said. "Officers check to see if the door's unlocked, if the windows are cracked, if there's anything in clear view, and they leave a report card on the windshield." According to Smith, HPD has been conducting these checks citywide for the past two years.

Have you ever received a BMV? Have you ever even seen one? We can't say we have. And we wonder whether it's even useful — or just another beacon for opportunistic burglars.

It's just not that important

What about increasing protection in areas, such as Memorial Park, that have become known for their squirrely activity? What about making the area safer?

"Just because you don't see an officer doesn't mean there's no one there," Smith said.

But if no one comes to the scene for an hour after placing a call to HPD, isn't it safe to say that there isn't anyone in the area — plain clothes or no?

"All calls are coded by priority," Smith said. "Burglary, which isn't a threat to life, is coded low, and if the officers are on a higher priority . . ."

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