Burglaries, including those committed by "office creepers" are on the rise in the 13th Precinct, the precinct's commanding officer, Deputy Inspector Ted Berntsen said.
Berntsen discussed this and other crime trends at an event held at TD Bank on Park Avenue South, which was part of the Flatiron BID's Speaker Series last Wednesday.
According to Berntsen, the Flatiron neighborhood is at a unique disadvantage because of the unusual building layouts in the district, which makes it easier for unauthorized people, known as "creepers," to walk around in office buildings unchecked because it is difficult to determine who belongs in the building and who doesn't. There has been an increase in burglaries this year, with 57 so far, compared to 26 for all of last year, with a specific increase in the theft of electronic devices, both in the precinct and citywide. The majority of thefts in the Precinct have taken place in office buildings, with freight elevators, back doors and fire escapes presenting weakness against thieves.
"It's about education and knowing what to look for," said Berntsen. "Recent ploys include kids going into office buildings asking for donations for the YMCA. If they get donations, that's just a bonus. They're really there to grab things people leave lying on their desks, like laptops, iPhones and other electronics."
The rising popularity of Apple products has had a definite effect on what criminals have been snatching up, as Berntsen said that 40 percent of the thefts in the city this year have been related to electronics like iPhones and iPods. (It's 60 percent in the precinct.) Thieves are especially crafty on the trains, snatching phones out of people's hands just as the doors are closing, preventing the victims from chasing after or even getting a look at the criminal. Berntsen encouraged residents who own iPhones to set up the iCloud, which allows the owner to track the phone if it has been stolen.
Another type of larceny Berntsen noted has increased is identity theft. The increase is nationwide, he said, but has also increased in this neighborhood due to the rise in population. "It's one of the hardest crimes to combat because a lot of it takes place electronically and overseas," he added, warning residents to never put personal information such as credit card or Social Security numbers into their computers.
Berntsen also said that the increase of younger residents in the community has contributed to the booming nightlife in the area. While this hasn't necessarily had an impact on increased crime, it is a point of concern for many residents, specifically because of the noise it often causes.
"With the bars on Third Avenue, it's like the Wild West on 21st Street," one resident noted.
Berntsen said that this is partially caused by the smoking laws, which have brought people outside. In an attempt to stem the noise issue, the precinct has increased the number of officers patrolling the area at night, specifically between the hours of 9 p.m. and 5 a.m. He also noted that the precinct has been making a special effort to deal with excessive drinking by working with bar managers in the area. "We're always speaking about over-serving," he said. "We want them to call us if they think someone's had too much," he added, noting that this is to address both potential noise and safety issues.
When Berntsen gave this talk last Wednesday, he noted that there had been no murders in the precinct this year. This changed on Sunday when a 25-year-old soccer coach was killed in a stabbing on West 14th Street. Regardless, the numbers from the past few years are an improvement from 20 years ago, Berntsen noted, when the number of homicides in the Precinct was 13 in 1990, compared to two homicides last year.
There have been 13 rapes in the precinct so far this year, compared to 13 total last year. Berntsen said that rape is one of the most important crimes that the precinct works on preventing, noting that the majority of them occur between acquaintances rather than as random attacks from strangers. Twelve of the 13 rapes this year have been between acquaintances.
Noting that the community has grown a great deal in the past 10 years, Berntsen said that the precinct wants to be sensitive to issues that are most important to the community amidst these changes. One of the recent initiatives by the precinct is a service that began this past July to provide weekly crime prevention tips for the community through an email listserv. He also encouraged residents to attend Community Council meetings to let the precinct know about their concerns.
"Community councils throughout the city were recently surveyed about quality of life issues. Around here, one of the big issues for people is the increase in bicycles on the sidewalk," he said. "In neighborhoods in Brooklyn, it's gun shots through the windows."
Berntsen also expressed surprise about how the neighborhood has grown in the past ten years and explained how these changes have been affecting crime in the area.
"In 1996 on this side of Manhattan, you couldn't get a cup of coffee after 6 o'clock, it was so quiet," he said.
The population has since grown by almost 18 percent between 2000 and 2010, Berntsen noted.
"With that kind of population increase, you have more people and that means more crime."