|By Richard Rubin, The Charlotte Observer, N.C.|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Apr. 4, 2005 - Charlotte-Mecklenburg police are trying to tamp down a surge in crime at hotels and motels, where car break-ins often leave visitors with a sour taste.
All reported crimes at hotels jumped 15.5 percent in 2004, to more than 2,400 -- many of which are car break-ins. That rate includes even faster increases in west and southwest Charlotte.
Late last year, police began providing more security advice to hotel owners and guests. Now, they are mulling an ordinance that would require cooperation from all hotels, said Capt. Diego Anselmo, who has been leading the department's response to hotel crime.
But police face major difficulties, including the challenge of prosecuting cases when the victims live out of state and cannot return for a trial.
Mayor Pat McCrory said he wants to expand the definition of victims to include hotel owners and managers.
"I firmly believe the victims of the crimes are not just those whose cars are broken into, but the business property," he said, "because they have a long-term impact on whether the customers come back."
At a recent council meeting, McCrory said he was still gathering legal opinions about the matter. He encouraged pressure on the district attorney's office to change the way it prosecutes car break-ins around hotels and other businesses.
It's not that simple, said Bart Menser, deputy district attorney.
To get a larceny conviction, prosecutors must show that the property belonged to someone else and was taken without permission. They cannot rely on affidavits or sworn statements, Menser said, because defendants have a constitutional right to cross-examine their accusers.
"I don't know how you get away from the fact that the property is actually owned by someone else," Menser said.
If prosecutors don't change their approach, the city should seek a change in state law, said McCrory and Mohammad Jenatian of the Greater Charlotte Hospitality and Tourism Alliance. Jenatian said he was unaware of any other cities or states that let hotel managers testify as victims in such cases.
Perhaps a bigger issue, Jenatian said, is the way that police treat car break-ins. In most cases, their policy requires victims to file reports by telephone or over the Internet, instead of sending an officer to the scene. Jenatian, who has worked with police for more than a decade, praised officers but said the policy must change.
"We need to continue having the meetings," Jenatian said, "but I don't see any results from them. We just need to send a stronger message to the criminals. ... To be quite honest with you, them knowing that they're not going to see a police officer, they're getting braver and braver every day."
Except for crimes in progress, police do not respond to car break-ins and car thefts, because that is not the best use of officers' time, Anselmo said.
"That officer that would have spent an hour taking a report on scene is actually out there patrolling," he said.
That policy has been controversial and unpopular with residents. Just last week, a woman was accused of falsely reporting that her child was in a stolen car so police would respond immediately.
Police also will respond to cases where multiple crimes occurred at once. Until recently, Anselmo said, many hotel managers did not know that and were reporting a spree of break-ins one by one.
A collaborative approach between police and the industry can work, Anselmo said, pointing to a pilot program in University City that's credited with lowering crime there. Officers give hotel managers advice on increasing security, such as changes to landscaping and lighting.
Mayor Pro Tem Patrick Cannon said the police department should revisit its policy on when to send officers. Cannon, who chairs the council's Community Safety Committee, said he often hears complaints from visitors when they cannot get an officer to come.
"People come with one impression and then they leave with another," he said.
HOTEL CRIME PREVENTION TIPS
--Lock your car doors.
--Don't leave valuable items in plain sight.
--If multiple break-ins have occurred, mention that to police when you call 911.
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