Though property crimes were up slightly in the Region in 2016 over the previous year, the 10-year trend is that such crimes are fewer and far between, compared to a decade ago.

Last year, property crimes — which include burglary, larceny, vehicle theft and arson — were down compared to 2015 in Crown Point, Dyer, East Chicago, Griffith, Hobart, Lake Station, Michigan City, Whiting and Lake County's unincorporated areas for which the Sheriff's Department is responsible. 

Gary, Hammond, Highland, LaPorte, Merrillville, Munster, Portage, Schererville, Valparaiso, along with unincorporated areas of LaPorte and Porter counties, saw increases for property crimes, according to the data from local police agencies and the FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting database. 

From 2006 to 2016, all but one community — Merrillville — experienced declines in property crime, according to the FBI’s UCR database.

In communities where property crimes were down, law enforcement officials are crediting solid relationships with communities, partnerships with federal agencies and improved technology.

'Facebook has helped'

While Hobart ranks high for its property crime rate per capita, the city experienced the most significant decrease in property crimes in 2016 from the year before, compared to neighboring communities.

Hobart police Lt. James Gonzales said he credits the department's social media presence and strong relationship with the community in officers' efforts to solve crimes. Gonzales’ postings of suspect photos to social media are often shared hundreds of times in a matter of hours. 

“Absolutely, Facebook has helped,” Gonzales said.

Hobart was one of the key agencies that helped bring down a burglary ring responsible for a string of daytime break-ins that spanned Lake and Porter counties last year, he said. 

Gonzales said one Hobart woman's tenacity helped crack the case after her home was burglarized May 5. Two large containers of change went missing, so she called a Strack & Van Til store manager and asked that they check surveillance footage, he said. 

The manager, who discovered two women on surveillance footage cashing the change, handed the evidence over to the Hobart Police Department.

“We blasted them all over the media, and had calls within an hour. We knew we had opened up Pandora’s box," Gonzales said.

"Burglaries are very difficult to solve, but because of this woman’s initiative, her tenacity, we learned the suspects were responsible for more than 70 burglaries in Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties.”

Among the burglaries that have been solved by the Lake County Sheriff's Department, investigators often find that stolen goods are being pawned for cash to buy heroin, said department spokesman Mark Back.

The department solved nearly 21 percent of its 97 burglaries last year, which is above the national average of 13 percent. Burglaries are difficult to solve due to lack of evidence, he said. 

In Schererville, where property crimes were up in 2016 compared to the previous year, Police Chief Dave Dowling said his officers are doing exceptionally well, given they are responsible for patrolling one of Northwest Indiana’s larger shopping corridors. The department's Crime Reduction Enforcement Unit will "go wherever we're having a problem," he said. 

"We want to be proactive and not just react and take a police report," Dowling said.

Dowling said his CREU team's work on a drug case last year helped St. John police secure drug charges recently against a 58-year-old St. John man after $28,000 in cash and narcotics operations were found in his home. 

An easy target

While burglaries are down considerably in Highland compared to a decade ago, the town had 67 burglaries last year, up from 48 in 2015.

“Our increase in burglaries were attributable to one individual whom, due to a drug addiction, preyed upon his neighbors and friends, striking his own parents' home on three occasions alone,” Highland Police Chief Pete Hojnicki said.

Griffith reported 42 burglaries in 2016, down from 65 the year before. Griffith Police Chief Greg Mance said much of the decline can be attributed to the department's initiative to actively engage with residents living in the community who are on probation after serving time for burglary or theft. 

"At least once a month, we make contact. What that does is, it lets people on probation know we're being proactive. If someone is on probation, and we see them in an area that's outside of their own neighborhood, that gives us cause to make a consensual stop," Mance said. 

Mance also credited outgoing U.S. Attorney David Capp for his work on the federal level. Capp was among the 46 U.S. attorneys appointed under then-President Barack Obama who was asked to resign last week by the Donald Trump administration.

"Gang members use a wide menu of crimes to support their criminal enterprise. Capp has done a good job of going after them in a manner that, locally, we haven't been able to."

In Merrillville, the department’s FBI crime report shows an increase in larceny thefts last year, but a 13.7 percent decrease in burglaries, and a 13.4 percent decline in vehicle thefts. Merrillville Police Chief Joe Petruch said he credits strong communication with other local agencies and targeted patrols in neighborhoods once crime patterns are discovered.

“It’s mostly people from out of town. You’ll see them hit a couple of houses on the south side of town or on the west side, and we’ll jump on that pattern,” Petruch said.

The Munster Police Department recorded 472 property crime reports last year, down from 547 in 2006, but law enforcement saw a slight increase — 432 to 472 — between 2015 and 2016. Munster Police Chief Steve Scheckel said he wouldn't consider that a sign of any wider trends, noting the decadelong downward trend. 

LaPorte, Porter counties

Police say at least part of the problem is kept alive as a result of illegal drug use, with many thefts and burglaries throughout the Region being committed by people seeking items to help support drug habits. 

If a television shows up missing from a home, it's not because someone wanted to watch a game, said LaPorte County Sheriff's Capt. Mike Kellems. 

The Porter County Sheriff's Department reported that most of its unsolved burglaries last year involved non-forced entry and the theft of pharmaceutical drugs, especially opiates. The department made 19 arrests last year, clearing about half the 82 reported burglaries.

Portage Police Chief Troy Williams said a small increase in property crimes last year after a decadelong fall is likely the result of an unusual number of shifts lost to major illness, workers' compensation, sick days and other excused absences among officers.

"Overall, we have drastically reduced the bulk of those specific categories through what I believe is a more proactive approach to addressing crimes," he said.

These proactive approaches include "more community interaction/involvement, providing better equipment for our officers and the hiring of quality officers," Williams said.

The department has hired 23 new officers since January 2012.

The Michigan City Police Department experienced a drop in theft cases last year, but saw increases in burglaries and motor vehicle thefts that were not significant enough to be alarming, Chief of Services Royce Williams said.

The crimes may not be as random as some may think, with acquaintances or relatives being behind the large number of theft reports, Williams said. 

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Lauren covers breaking news, crime and courts for The Times. She previously worked at The Herald-News in Joliet covering government, public policy, and the region’s heroin epidemic. She holds a master’s degree in Public Affairs Reporting.

Bob is a 22-year veteran of The Times. He covers county government and courts in Porter County, federal courts, police news and regional issues. He also created the Vegan in the Region blog, is an Indiana University grad and lifelong region resident.