RIVER WEST — I parked the car just before sunset on a warm spring evening and popped in The Matchbox to gobble grilled calamari, suck down a tasty glass of rum and chat with a pal.
After an hour or so, I returned to find my Chevy's back seat covered in shattered tinted glass and all my work stuff — computer, camera, hard drives, everything — gone.
When you're talking about Chicago crime, car break-ins clearly aren't as important as the shootings and murders that give our city a bad name.
But when it's your car that gets broken into, there's no denying how betrayed, violated and angry — at the thief who took the stuff and at yourself for leaving stuff in plain view — you feel while calling police.
Before a dispatcher could take my name, I spotted a squad car and flagged down an officer who stopped to take a report in person.
He was calm, professional and efficient with his questions: How long was I parked? Did I see anyone suspicious? What's missing?
After I calmed down, I asked him if there had been an uptick in car break-ins in the area. He shrugged and said he wasn't sure — that thieves were more likely to smash-and-grab a few miles south, closer to the expressway. But really, there's no telling where they'll strike.
Car break-ins, after all, are crimes of opportunity and most often occur in places where there are a lot of cars parked on the street that have stuff that's worth stealing in plain view.
That's what happened to me — I gave thieves an opportunity. I left my work gear on the back seat, not even considering that someone would break into my car during the day at an intersection crowded with cars, foot traffic and more bicycle commuters than you can count.
Dumb, I know.
But I'm not alone — and I find no comfort in that.
During the first six months of the year, more than 6,000 car owners parked in Chicago suffered a similar fate, according to police statistics obtained by DNAinfo Chicago through a Freedom of Information Act request. It's a slight increase from this time last year — 54 additional break-ins.
And as things turn out, thieves had the most opportunity to steal stuff — nearly twice a day — from cars in Lincoln Park so far this year. From January to June 21 in the 60614 ZIP Code, there were 321 car break-ins — 15 percent more than during the same period in 2013, police data shows.
Ald. Michele Smith (43rd) said car break-ins — like thefts from open garage doors and burglars who sneak through unlocked front doors — are the kind of preventable crimes that happen too often.
It happened to Smith when she moved to Lincoln Park in 1979. A thief broke into her car and stole the shopping bags of stuff she left on the back seat.
"I've never done that again," Smith said. "You don't want to blame anybody. People should feel safe [parking their cars], but you've got to know that it's a crime that you don't want to give someone the opportunity to commit."
On the West Side in Humboldt Park, car break-ins spiked 54 percent this year, with 297 reported smash-and-grabs in the 60622 ZIP Code, the second most citywide. In the neighborhood next door, gentrifying Logan Square, car burglars broke into 272 cars in the 60647 ZIP Code, statistics show.
In the South Loop, there were 227 car break-ins in the 60616 ZIP Code. Four South Side ZIP Codes stretching from Cicero to the lake — 60629, 60620, 60617, 60619 — accounted for 806 thefts from vehicles during the first six months of the year.
And on the Far South Side in Roseland, the 210 car break-ins during the first six months of the year accounted for a 65 percent increase compared to 2013, police statistics show.
"Once again, that's something where we have to constantly be vigilant, as people, to not leave stuff in our cars, not on the dashboard, not in the ashtray," Ald. Anthony Beale (9th) said. "Because if certain people see a chance to take something they're going to smash and grab. And if you see people walking down the street looking in cars, we all need to call police."
In other words, use a little common sense.
Because, in this town, when you let your guard down there's somebody waiting to take advantage of whatever opportunity that presents them.
Take it from a guy who learned that the hard way.
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