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MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
Burglary is one of the most mundane crimes. More than 2 million Americans are victims of burglaries every year. Even so, that number is a lot lower than it used to be. Over more than three decades, most crimes have risen and fallen repeatedly, but burglary has seen a steady decline.
NPR's Laura Sullivan tells us some of the reasons why.
LAURA SULLIVAN: To figure out what happened to all the burglaries, you have to begin here in an empty, beige waiting room of one of Washington, D.C.'s parole offices. In a chair is a neatly dressed man waiting to see his probation officer.
Mr. BARRY MATHIS (Parolee): The name is Barry Mathis. I was, you know, doing burglaries and things to support a habit.
SULLIVAN: Mathis says for almost 20 years, anything he stole he could quickly turn into cash.
Mr. MATHIS: I was a salesman. I could sell anything. You understand? I don't care what it is. If you give me some toilet paper, I could sell it.
SULLIVAN: But not anymore. Mathis says a few years ago, he noticed things had changed.
Mr. MATHIS: If you're going to do a burglary or you're going to get something, you need to have some buyers. You need to have somebody to buy, you know. Now, you know, everybody have everything now. I mean, to me it's not worth that road. I mean, if you're going to get anything, get some money, man. Heck with appliances, heck with the boom boxes and all that.
SULLIVAN: Most criminals, it seems, agree. Bank robberies, rape, assault, murder, all spike from time to time, but not burglaries. For almost 30 straight years they've declined. Even any upticks are tiny. Mathis says there is just too much on the street already. Everyone he knows already has a digital camera, iPod knockoffs and pirated DVDs shipped in from China.
Mr. MATHIS: And if it's not new, a lot of people don't want to fool with it. And a lot of people want stuff new - brand new - in a box and all that. And so…
SULLIVAN: Forget about last year's video games, old laptops. And Mathis says don't even bring a VCR or boxy TV out to the street.
Mr. MATHIS: You can get a TV for nothing almost. People are giving them away now.
SULLIVAN: Mathis has been clean for more than five years now since participating in an offender-release program in D.C. called CSOSA. The program and the street economy may have turned Mathis' life around, but criminologists say when it comes to a 30-year drop in burglaries, there are a few of other reasons behind the drop, too - big ones like the 1 million private police and security guards at work in residential communities.
Mr. STEVE SOUTHWORTH (Private Police Investigator): We're in southern western Virginia, where I work at Wintergreen Resort.
SULLIVAN: Steve Southworth is a private police officer.
Mr. SOUTHWORTH: We're on the Appalachian Trail right where it crosses Reeds Gap, mile marker 13.5 on the Blue Ridge Parkway.
SULLIVAN: Wintergreen Resort is a community of fancy vacation homes sprawled out on a snowy mountain below. The residents here pay for his salary and for his car and for the lodge-like police headquarters with 11 other police officers. Residents say the cost is worth it, especially when a burglar hiked right past where Southworth is standing.
Mr. SOUTHWORTH: He came in off the trail, which runs very close to Wintergreen, and within two days ended up breaking into four homes.
SULLIVAN: Southworth spent six months tracking the man's path from New York down to Wintergreen.
Mr. SOUTHWORTH: We actually intercepted an e-mail that he sent. And through some things that were said on the Internet, we were able to zero in on his location a little closer.
SULLIVAN: So where did you finally catch him?
Mr. SOUTHWORTH: It was in Macon, Georgia.
SULLIVAN: All that to catch one burglar. That would've been unheard of in his former job as a county police officer just outside Richmond, Virginia.
Mr. SOUTHWORTH: I wouldn't have had the time. Here, the crime is considerably less, and it gave me time to concentrate on this case. This was the most major case at the time.
SULLIVAN: In the past, remote communities like this one, far from state police, were ripe for thieves. But since residents started paying their own private officers, crime dropped 70 percent, and many of the residents also did something else: They installed burglar alarms. One in four homes nationwide now has one. Add that to an explosion in other devices, like steel bars, stronger doors, security glass, and criminologists say homes are just more of a hassle to break into. Even the most basic anti-burglary device has undergone major changes since the 1970s.
Mr. RAHM BUNNAG (Locksmith): Good locks make all the difference.
SULLIVAN: Locksmith Rahm Bunnag is huddled in the back of his van re-keying a condominium lock in Alexandria, Virginia.
Mr. BUNNAG: This is Ossa. It's got a second set of cuts down the side. And then this is what I use on my house; this is Medico. It looks like a normal key on both sides, but when you look down at the cuts, you notice how they're cut on an angle. There's a 98 percent chance that says you can't pick it.
SULLIVAN: Keys are more intricate, even electronic. The 1970s also saw the widespread introduction of the deadbolt. But the biggest change when it comes to locks, criminologists say, is that people started using them. Of course, police will tell you burglaries have gone down because they police better. There's no way to know if police are preventing burglaries, but they're certainly not catching many burglars. According to the Justice Department, police solve fewer burglaries than any other crime, around one in 10. They're more likely to catch a car thief than a burglar. And that's something William Long always appreciated. In 20 years as a burglar, he only got caught a few times. But he never enjoyed the work.
Mr. WILLIAM LONG (Janitor): It's definitely no fun. It's stressful, strenuous, tiresome.
SULLIVAN: Long live now on a quite street in D.C. with his wife. As he walks down his own block, he still separates in his head the inviting houses from the ones he would have passed over.
Mr. LONG: All these got black iron gates. Wood is easier than iron, ain't it? I mean, in some cases.
SULLIVAN: He says he didn't care much about alarms or locks or police patrols. He says he was no cat burglar. He just looked for open doors and windows.
Mr. LONG: If you got somebody who really wants to go in something, nothing can stop him, I don't think.
SULLIVAN: His biggest problem? People don't seem to keep cash in their houses anymore. Everyone uses credit cards and bank cards. Only diamonds have any real payoff, and he says they take too long to find.
Mr. LONG: There's no future in it. It's a headache, for real.
SULLIVAN: Recently, Long had something stolen from him. He was devastated when a thief stole a brand-new video camera from his car. It isn't the camera he misses. He knows where to get a new one for just a few dollars. It's the tape inside he wants — with footage of his dying stepfather.
Mr. LONG: They could have the camera. Just give me that film. I want the film of that moment we had. You know that's pretty much about it.
SULLIVAN: Do you ever wonder if you took something sentimental that belonged to somebody else?
Mr. LONG: Um, hmm. I never thought of it that way. Never thought of it that way.
SULLIVAN: Long steps back inside his house to grab his janitor's uniform before heading to work. On his way out, he stopped on the front porch and locked his door.
Laura Sullivan, NPR News.