Sgt. Josh Mecimore of the Chapel Hill Police Department knows that his town — the so called “Southern Part of Heaven” — is not crime-ridden. Still, Mecimore warns residents, retailers and school administrators to stay as vigilant as ever to deter trespassers, vandalism and thefts.
In the first three weeks of May, there have been 16 larceny, trespassing and vandalism incidents reported to the Chapel Hill Police Department. The nature and frequency of these incidents has many Chapel Hill residents and business owners concerned.
Stephen Elkins-Williams, rector at The Chapel Of the Cross in Chapel Hill, reported a larceny on May 19 that happened in the church. Rebecca Lynn Santin, 21, found $400 missing from her purse when she and other Orange County Habitat for Humanity volunteers returned from working in the community.
The volunteers were staying at the church last weekend as a stop during their 70 day cross-country Bike and Build program.
“They slept on the floor here in the church and while they were out working, unfortunately somebody passed through the building and scooped up her money,” Elkins-Williams said.
Mecimore says that these kinds of incidents happen all the time and any type of establishment or person can be at risk.
“Larcenies of cell phones, computers, wallets and even bicycles are common because most of these items are of high value. When people have these items in public places, people who are going to steal have a greater opportunity to do so, especially if a victim is not paying attention,” said Mecimore.
A number of trespassing incidents have also been reported to the police department in the last three weeks. These reports include trespassers on school campuses and suspicious individuals being in and around businesses.
East Chapel Hill High school reported a trespassing on campus May 18 but details of the incident are still under investigation.
“Typically high school’s don’t have security, so after hours they can’t do much to stop trespassing. If you happen to be out at the school though and see something suspicious then you should definitely call us. It’s always better than not calling and then we later find out that someone was spray painting the side of the building or something,” Mecimore said.
Starbucks employee Jeremy Ray reported a trespassing at the Franklin Street coffee shop involving an individual who damaged the property.
“A homeless guy came into the store and used our restroom. He left the bathroom with feces all over the place and a big mess,” Ray said.
Officer Mark Geercken of the Chapel Hill Police Department’s Community Services Unit said, “If somebody comes into a business and the owner or manager doesn’t want them there or they’re damaging the property, then the owner legally has the right to ask that person to leave. This has to be done in front of a Chapel Hill Police officer and then we can log it as trespassing.”
Geercken says the trespassing log is important because if the same person trespasses at a business more than once and there is a different responding officer than the first time, then the log is checked. The perpetrator’s name will show up, and the officer can see that the individual ha been asked to leave previously.
“If someone has been known to trespass at a particular location multiple times we will either write them a citation or arrest them,” said Geercken.
Thefts and vandalism to property are incidents Geercken and Mecimore say the Community Services Unit is paying special attention to.
“We conduct training with employees from individual businesses so they can be more aware of shoplifters and suspicious individuals in their stores,” said Geercken. “We’ll go out with people and do what we call security surveys. They take us around their property and we make suggestions about improving windows, locks, security systems, lighting and other things.”
Mecimore says they advise owners to trim bushes down below windows and improve lighting outside of their business.
“We call this concept environmental design and it’s a useful practice for crime prevention in the community. Vandalism to businesses can be deterred more if owners have good lighting and visibility around their place,” said Mecimore.
Mark Geercken said community members helping out when the police aren’t patrolling neighborhoods most often deters vandalism and thefts in residential areas.
“A lot of folks in the neighborhoods have community watches and put signs up showing that their neighborhoods are being actively vigilant against threats,” said Geercken.
According to police reports, Karupiah Jayaraj, 65, of Chapel Hill reported vandalism and damage amounting to $200 to his mailbox in a residential neighborhood on May 17.
Mecimore said, “There isn’t a whole lot that someone can do to stop this kind of incident from happening, but when it does typically we just take a report documenting the damage. If there was a series of these, then we would know they are related and make our officers aware of what to be on the look out for.”
Although none of the incidents reported to the Chapel Hill Police since May 2 have been found to be connected, Geercken said the number and nature of these occurrences are keeping the Community Services Unit busy.
“The police department has an overall plan to help Chapel Hill residents and business owners live more safely. We’re really implementing now more than ever community policing,” said Geercken. “We want our officers walking and talking with business owners and the general public in the community letting them know of our presence and that we’re here to help however we can.”
This article was written for the JOMC 253 Reporting class at UNC’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication.