Holiday season creates spike in on-campus crime

Lachlan Johnson

As the holidays approach, Whitman Security and the Walla Walla Police Department are preparing for what is typically the busiest time of the year for thefts and burglaries of Whitman students’ belongings. By increasing patrols and working together to identify suspects, Security and the WWPD hope to prevent crime and recover stolen objects.

This semester belongings have disappeared everywhere from interest houses to the fraternities, as well as from cars and off-campus houses. According to Director of Security Matthew Stroe, the thieves’ typical method appears to be snatching unattended items from public areas or unlocked houses or cars.

“For the most part, if they take a bookbag or anything like that, they’re looking for electronics. You tend to find the bags later on, within a block or block and a half of where they were taken from,” said Stroe. “Most thefts we’ve had here have been cellphones, laptops, tablets, those sort of things.”

While the theft of expensive electronics may be distressing to student victims, according to Officer Jeremy Maiuri of the WWPD the majority of electronics are eventually recovered. They are easily tracked by their serial numbers.

“The items that we’re usually able to catch are computers, GPS units, things that have serial numbers that we’re able to track, cell phones and stuff like that,” Maiuri said. “Usually things turn up … It could be months down the road or it can be the same day.”

Pawn shops are required to run the serial number on electronics to see if the item was stolen. Because the thief must also submit a picture ID for this process, a matching serial number can lead to both the recovery of the stolen item and a potential suspect for the investigation.

Some electronics can also be tracked using GPS smart phone applications. Senior Sam Adler used the Find My iPhone app to track down his stolen backpack and recover his computer.

“I was able to see that someone was using my laptop on Main Street near Macy’s and Starbucks. I drove downtown and saw a man walking out of Coffee Connection with my backpack. I asked him to give me back my backpack. He reluctantly complied and I rifled through my bag and saw that my laptop and charger were still there,” said Adler in an e-mail.

The holiday season is usually a peak time for crime. Many students leave campus, cold weather causes the homeless population to seek shelter indoors and people are looking for a way to find money for the holidays.

“[Thieves are] pawning and selling [stolen goods] to buy whatever they need to buy; it usually dies off right after Christmas,” said Stroe.

In response, Whitman Security and the WWPD are increasing patrols around the periphery of campus and working together to identify likely suspects on campus.

“[Stroe will] get descriptions from students or faculty of the person suspected of committing these thefts, he’ll run it by us … and just based on descriptions, most of the time we can tell him who we think it is because those are people who aren’t only stealing on campus, they’re stealing all over town,” said Maiuri. “Usually there’s this same core group of people who hang out in the downtown/Whitman campus area.”

Mauiri and Stroe have both noticed an increase this year in the number of transient youth who congregate in Heritage Park in downtown Walla Walla, just west of the Whitman campus. Because most are in their twenties or thirties, it is possible for them to blend in on the Whitman campus and wait for the opportunity to grab an unattended bag or electronic.

“A lot of the people down there, they don’t work, they don’t go to school or anything, so they’re out there looking to obtain property or get some money,” said Maiuri. “The few that we’ve caught recently on campus that have stolen some stuff, those are people that are known drug users so usually they’re stealing these items to sell them to buy narcotics.”

After an individual is recognized as a likely thief, the WWPD provides Whitman Security with photos of them acquired from booking photos (colloquially known as mug shots) or social media. Security may then choose to trespass the individual on campus. When they do this, the police contact the individual to let them know they cannot return to campus; if they do, they may be arrested and charged with criminal trespassing.

“It’s a sad deal to have a homeless population like that [in Walla Walla], but if they’re involved in thefts it makes things worse because it’s a double-edged sword; you want to help somebody, but they’re stealing from other people,” said Stroe.

Senior Grant Rommel is one of the few Whitman students to have caught a burglar in the act of theft.

“All my housemates were out to dinner, and they’d be gone for about an hour, so I thought they’d be back soon,” said Rommel. “I heard the door open. A few minutes later I walked into the living room, and a guy I didn’t know was stuffing my housemate’s laptop into his backpack.”

Rommel closed the door and asked what the man thought he was doing. Fortunately, the thief was not aggressive.

“He had a very guilty look on his face…he was maybe a few years older than I am,” Rommel said. “He looked very deer-in-the-headlights.”

After apologizing profusely and emptying his bag, the thief fled the house. Rommel reported the incident and the thief’s appearance to the police, and walked away from the incident without losing any belongings.

Not all students who encounter burglars have been as lucky as Rommel. One Whitman senior who wished to remain anonymous confronted a burglar and chased him down the sidewalk when the thief pulled a knife on him.

Though the student escaped unharmed, the incident gives weight to the police’s request that students witnessing a theft call for help instead of stepping into a potentially dangerous situation.

“It would be better if [students] were to contact security or the PD and had us going with them, cause I’d rather have us put in harm’s way [than them],” said Stroe.