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The Advocate: Let’s face it: We’re part of the crime problem

By Jay Williams, Jr.

It happened in broad daylight on Lower King Street. After a tiring road trip on a Thursday in January, a woman parked her car in front of her house around dusk. At 8:30 a.m. the next morning, she saw her 2019 BMW X3 when she looked out her front kitchen window. It was there around 9 a.m. when the housekeeper arrived, and it was still there at 1 p.m. on Friday when she left for lunch. But when the housekeeper left for the day at 4 p.m., it wasn’t there. The housekeeper figured someone had moved it, so she didn’t mention it.

That evening just after 6 p.m., her husband asked, “Oh, a space has opened up in front of the house, do you want me to move your car?” Reflexively, the woman said, “Sure.” Her husband returned a minute later and asked, “So where is your car?” After determining that neither had driven it that day, and it hadn’t moved itself, reality hit. The car had been stolen.

By 6:30 p.m., they called Charleston Police, and an officer arrived within five minutes. Right away, the police officer and the couple contacted BMW, and their emergency service operator tracked their car to an address in North Charleston.

North Charleston Police were quickly linked up with the Charleston officer and the BMW service operator, and an officer drove to the address shown on the car’s GPS. In the dark, the car was not visible at that location, so the North Charleston officer waited for backup to investigate. After a search, the officers discovered the car off the street, hidden along an unlighted utility easement. The couple drove to North Charleston, met the police and returned home with their undamaged car by 8:30 p.m. They were lucky; a day later, they wouldn’t have been.

However, they weren’t quite done. They had to consider what to do next. How did the thieves get in the car? The key fob was kept on the front kitchen windowsill; was the key fob close enough to the car parked on the street that someone could press the handle and unlock it? The woman believes she locked the car the night before, but could she have accidentally double-clicked the handle and unlocked it? Had they left a valet key in the glove box, and did the thieves still have that key? If so, they could simply come back and take it again. So, the couple found a secure location for the car for the next three nights night until BMW could change the car locks and, importantly, “disable” the old key.

Now, what about your car? Many cars are not able to be tracked, thieves could disable the tracking device or you may not notice the theft right away. Would you be as lucky?

We are part of the crime problem

Many believe crime is increasing in Charleston. Friends tell me they don’t like walking after dark, even South of Broad. Women tell me that they’ll drive short distances in the evening, if they go out at all. Some express concerns about shopping on King Street.

A few well-publicized incidents have stoked this fear, and although the other newspaper may not always cover city council meetings, it seems to report most violent crime incidents. Sensational headlines in the national press, online videos and national crime statistics aren’t reassuring.

But for Charleston, the crime data are more reassuring. From 2020 to 2021, total violent crime citywide was up just 2.4 percent and nonviolent crime was down 5.8 percent, according to the Charleston Police Department. These data are hardly reflective of the crime waves we hear about elsewhere.

For Team 2, which patrols the area south of Calhoun, the comparison from 2020 to 2021 is more revealing. Violent crime in this particular area is up 11.4 percent, an increase created by five additional aggravated assault charges and two additional sex offenses. Both homicides and robberies declined. Nonviolent crimes including burglary and breaking and entering also dropped year to year, except for one important category: motor vehicle theft jumped 53 percent, and that translates to 77 vehicles (including golf carts) that were stolen last year.

Lynn White, a former president of the Charlestowne Neighborhood Association, notes, “No doubt the recent dramatic increase in used car prices has motivated more theft, but it was growing before that occurred. I think you can make a case that south of Calhoun is pretty safe (except maybe around the projects by the Old Jail and C of C) and would be quite secure, too, if people took precautions for their vehicles.”

What about the first three months of this year? The chart below reveals the statistics of crime south of Calhoun for the full year, 2021, and then compares the first three months of 2021 to 2022. Spot a trend?

The problem south of Calhoun isn’t violent crime; it’s increasing car thefts and car break-ins. Almost all of it is preventable.

Lt. Katrina Rivers, a 25-year veteran with the Charleston Police Department, sees no evidence of stolen cars being “hotwired, like you see in the movies. For the ones that I look up when they are recovered, I would have to argue that there was a key in there, or in the case of golf carts, someone had a universal key.”

According to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, 209 cars are stolen every day with keys or the key fob left in the car. That number is growing, too, probably because you don’t need to handle the car fob to turn off the car, so they’re easy to leave behind.

Be situationally aware

That backpack left on the back seat may have nothing valuable in it, Lt. Rivers says, but it’s attractive to a criminal who wonders what’s in there. Even if you’ve locked your car, you’re inviting a break-in. Once inside, it takes only seconds for a thief to rifle your center console and glove box.

There’s an unspoken problem that occurs when you don’t lock your car or do leave items visible inside. These soft targets attract kids and criminals who come here searching for an easy score. The more often they come here, the more likely they’ll succeed.

“When you live in an area that’s not prone to a lot of crime, you just assume you’re untouchable, unfortunately. I try to tell people that if you live next to the police department, you’re still vulnerable to crime,” Lt. Rivers advises. “I don’t want you to be paranoid but be cognizant of your surroundings.”

Situational awareness matters. Lock your car, don’t leave items visible inside, keep your key fob in the house well away from the car outside, chain your golf cart, look around before you walk around and immediately report anything to the police that looks suspicious. Prevention is the best protection.

Jay Williams, Jr. arrived in Charleston in 2001 to escape the cold and relax in the warmth of a better culture and climate. This all worked well until May of 2011 when he attended a cruise terminal discussion at Physicians Hall.


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