Bay Area cities have seen double-digit jumps in home burglaries during the first half of 2012 as a storm of such factors as fewer cops on the streets and rumors of easy targets have collided to boost thievery.

The biggest spike is in Palo Alto, with a 63 percent jump in home burglaries, but Oakland has seen a 33 percent hike, and the surge in San Jose is 39 percent.

San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed last week called for data on the spike and an explanation of what his police chief was doing about it. In both San Jose and Oakland, with fewer officers able to respond to calls, police are focusing on homicides or rapes instead, while the reaction to burglaries gets lower priority.

In contrast, police say, the situation on the Peninsula appears to be driven more by the belief in crime circles that communities along the Interstate 280 corridor are easy marks for jewelry and electronics, and homeowners are helping by leaving doors and windows unlocked.

Budget cuts push trend

San Jose Police Chief Chris Moore said budget cuts have chopped his department down from 1,409 officers and trainees in 2007 to 1,056 cops now. As a result, he said, officers on the street may be swamped with calls for help. The less urgent ones, such as a report of a suspicious person, might not get a speedy response. Calls about suspicious people often are tied to break-ins, police say.

San Jose police this year also stopped responding to burglar alarms unless someone confirms that a break-in has happened. But Moore said he believes that has little to do with the recent upward swing.

Moore said he's focusing his resources on fighting back against such violent crimes as killings, gang fights and rapes, as well as other matters directly related to public safety. He said he'd rather not have to choose which types of crimes get priority, but that's the reality.

"These (burglars) don't stop until you catch them," Moore said. "I'd rather catch them the first time, instead of after the sixth or seventh crime."

Oakland, which is down to about 640 officers, a drop of 200 from just three years ago, also gives priority to violent crimes, Oakland Police Department spokeswoman Officer Johnna Watson said.

She said the staff cuts are part of the mix of factors pushing the spike. Recently, she said, the department shifted more cops, vehicles and attention to address the problem and that has made a difference. Police are noticing a recent curb in the burglary trend.

Yet the number of cops on the street isn't the only factor in the burglary bounce. In fact, the Contra Costa County Sheriff's Office, which patrols areas that include more than 517,000 people, has also lost officers because of budget cuts. Yet, home burglaries are down by 13 percent in its jurisdiction, which includes Danville, Orinda, Lafayette and Oakley. Sheriff's Office spokesman Jimmy Lee didn't give a particular initiative credit; rather, he said, it's part of the overall drop in crime the Sheriff's Office has seen.

Rumors abound

Peninsula police, meanwhile, have been dealing with a spike in crimes that they believe is related to a rumor circulating in some East Bay crime circles.

Detective Bob Collins of the South San Francisco Police Department, which had a 31 percent break-in jump, said burglary suspects have told investigators they'd heard from other crooks that Interstate 280 corridor communities had lots of wealth.

"These homes are upper-middle class and they have things people want," Collins said, adding Peninsula police have launched a regional effort to fight the trend.

Palo Alto police acknowledge a direct connection between dozens of its burglaries and its residents' tendency to leave windows or doors unlocked.

"Unlocked doors have played a significant role," Palo Alto police Sgt. Brian Philip said. "It allows (burglars) a stealthy approach."

Palo Alto police even launched a "Lock It or Lose It" campaign after publicizing the burglary spike in March. But it doesn't appear all residents have been following that advice. Police announced a second spate of burglaries in mid-July, with at least 20 reported since early June. And guess how the crooks got in? Unlocked doors and windows.

It's not the economy

Several police agencies have pointed to the down economy as a factor in the recent burglary surge. But Robert McCrie, a security expert at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, said the difficulty -- or ease -- of stealing from a home is a better predictor of crime.

In fact, most of the Bay Area's biggest cities, and the country as a whole, have seen overall crime continue to fall in the years after the Great Recession, according to FBI statistics.

So-called "soft target" communities, where home entrances are camouflaged by trees and don't have or use alarm systems, are more likely to attract burglars.

"These are the things that increase the chances you get away with it," McCrie said. "Burglars pass this message on and someone else might say, 'Hey, I can do that.' "

Contact Joshua Melvin at 650-348-4335. Follow him at Twitter.com/melvinreport.

  • Lock doors and windows.

  • Call police if you see someone or something suspicious.

  • Get a burglar alarm or use it if you already have one.

  • Trim back hedges and vegetation near doors and windows.

  • Record serial numbers of expensive items and take photos of them.

  • Put items like jewelry in a safety deposit box.

  • Install tracking apps on smartphones and tablet computers.