CITY HALL – A guy who goes from car to car in the middle of the night pulling the door latch on each vehicle is definitely up to no good. The Board of Aldermen soon will decide whether that man is committing a crime.
Aldermen are considering a bill that would make it unlawful for anyone to attempt to open the doors and locks of successive cars in an effort to get into them. The only exceptions would be if the person owns the vehicle or has the permission of the owner to get into the vehicles.
Violators would have to pay a $500 fine or spend up to 90 days in jail, the maximum for any city offense allowed by the City Charter.
Following a hearing on Thursday, the Board of Aldermen’s Public Safety Committee voted to send the measure to full board for consideration with a “do pass” recommendation.
Sixteenth Ward Alderman Tom Oldenburg, the bill’s sponsor, told members of the Board of Aldermen’s Public Safety Committee on Thursday that a number of his constituents have expressed concern about people trying car handles.
While some state laws for such things as attempted auto burglary might apply, a local ordinance might encourage police to focus more on this problem, Oldenburg said.
People are scared when they see people in the middle of the night flipping door handles, Oldenburg said.
“They become very scared,” he said. “At times, police will say, ‘We’ll send an officer, but we’re not going to do a report, because it’s not a crime.’”
One speaker who emphasized the importance of the proposal was Tom Scheifler, a longtime St. Louis Hills resident, a member of the board of the St. Louis Hills Neighborhood Association and the co-chair of the St. Louis Hills Neighborhood Association.
“Thieves are operating in our neighborhoods, every day and night,” Scheifler said.
“Earlier this year, when my security camera recorded one of these incidents, I called the police to make a report and was told by the responding officers that flipping car handles was not a crime,” Scheifler said. Unless their property was damaged or stolen, he couldn’t file a police report, he explained.
Unfortunately, the police department allocates its resources based on crime data, he said.
Scheifler posted a survey asking how many people wanted a law. A total of 411 people, or 84 percent of those who responded, said trying car door handles should be illegal.
Another 16th Ward resident, Matthew Vitale, said he wasn’t sure how helpful this would be, especially considering other crimes the city has.
“If the doors are unlocked, they’re most likely to go in the vehicle and quickly look for anything worth stealing,” Vitale noted. “If they are locked and they don’t see anything of interest in plain view, they typically move on to find an easier target.
“Considering the widespread occurrences of car checking across the city, it isn’t clear to me how this ordinance will live up to the promise of deterring in or reducing [crime] from unlocked cars.”
Twenty-Sixth Ward Alderwoman Shameem C. Hubbard said she didn’t want this to be a predatory tool against people who might just be walking through neighborhoods.
“Are you going to just say they were just pulling on handles, or how are they going to carry out this?” she asked.
Oldenburg said that if people were just walking through a neighborhood, they wouldn’t be liable. But, he said, “If they’re moving through car by car and lifting the handle, that’s a scarier incident.”
Third Ward Alderman Brandon Bosley said it was important that police got the right people.
Oldenburg promised to work with Bosley to tighten up the measure.
“Trust me, at the top of my mind, I don’t want just another tool for what is a reload of ‘stop and frisk,’” Oldenburg responded.
Officer Michelle Woodling, public information officer for the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, said in an email, “Our department always encourages anyone observing suspicious activity to contact police.”
Interim Public Safety Director Dan Isom did not respond to a request for comment.
Isom wants to meet with Oldenburg before the language becomes final, 23rd Ward Alderman Joseph Vaccaro said. Oldenburg promised to work with Isom, the mayor’s office and anyone else who wants to discuss the measure.