Safe at home: How to prevent becoming a burglary victim

SPOKANE, Wash. - We all think our homes are secure or that we'll never become the victims of burglary. That's exactly what KXLY4's Colleen O'Brien thought until a man tried to get into her home while she was home alone.

In September, there were 565 total burglaries in Spokane County – that's 18 a day. Now that it's getting darker earlier the cover of night offers the perfect landscape for criminals to sneak around your home at night.

A majority of residential burglaries happen in the daylight when you're at work, but Colleen O'Brien was home alone and asleep when the burglar came knocking at 8 p.m.

Safe at home

The following is Colleen's account of what happened and parts of her 911 call:

Three weeks ago to the day I was home alone, the house was pitch black and I was asleep early in preparation for working an early-morning shift.

Operator: "911 what are you reporting?
Colleen: There's somebody outside my house.

I woke to the sound of knocking at my front door that wouldn't stop. I called my husband to see if it was, by chance, him and he had just locked himself out. It wasn't.

Operator: Are you home alone right now?
Colleen: Yes.
Operator: And you're not expecting anyone?
Colleen: No.

I watched from my bedroom window as the man left my front door. I thought he was leaving for good until he turned and walked down my driveway to the back of my house.

I walked out into my hallway, cell phone in  hand, when I heard the latch to my back gate open. I was convinced he was going to kick in my back door and find me. I knew I was in trouble and began to panic even more.

Operator: And now it sounds like they're in the back of the house.
Colleen: Yes!

I thought I was prepared for a situation like this. My husband and I talk security and safety all the time. Instead, I was frozen, stuck cowering on my bathroom floor as the burglar found an entry point at my home.

My weakest point was my garage. He got into the garage and stole small items that aren't worth much. He attempted to steal a mountain bike but ditched it probably because the tires were flat. While I'm thankful it didn't turn out worse – for 20 minutes that man took away my sense of security.

The Lesson

Since the burglary, Colleen has done everything in her power to educate herself on how to properly secure her home and now she wants you to do the same. She invited Spokane County Deputy Greg Snyder into her home to find every security weakness – big and small.

Colleen also interviewed a convicted and admitted burglar who tried to justify why burglary isn't "as bad" as other crimes.

Despite reporting on crime for years with KXLY and giving out advice on TV on how to protect your home, Colleen felt naive after not taking her own advice. Deputy Snyder started on the outside of her home and she quickly learned mistake number one: keep lights on at all times inside and outside of your home.

"Your home looked like somebody wasn't here even though you were," Snyder pointed out.

The burglar knocked on Colleen's front door just to be sure and Snyder says she compounded the mistake by remaining quiet and not turning on any lights. The burglar is checking to see if anyone is home and if you let them know you are chances are they will leave.

"If you've got lights on timers, lights on the outside from dusk to dawn, they come on automatically when it starts getting dark, and those inside lights coming on timers, your home is going to look like you're there even when you're not," Snyder said.

Snyder says we can turn the tables on a criminal and make them feel uncomfortable. Light, inside and outside of your home, is "criminal kryptonite" as Colleen now calls it.

"If you see across the street and see a dark house, then they'll go to that house, if they look down the street and see a darker neighborhood, they'll go to that neighborhood," Snyder said.

Next, the two went inside Colleen's house and inspected the windows first. They're new windows so she said she was feeling pretty good about the security. Wrong again.

"We like to have some secondary locking device, the best way to really secure something like this is to lay a dowel in this track, then no matter how hard I pry I can't break this plastic stuff," Snyder said. The dowel is also a visual deterrent. If the burglar sees it, he won't bother.

The front door was looking better. Make sure your exterior doors are not hollow-core. The strike plate in which the deadbolt is secured can also be a weak point at your home.

"Some of the more expensive ones, what you're getting with that more expensive lock is you're getting screws that hold this metal piece into your door jam, you're getting screws that are going to be about three inches long so that they go into the stud behind the wall," Snyder said.

And easy and inexpensive fix is to go to your local hardware store and buy three-inch screws to replace the shorter ones. If you have glass near your door, consider having "safety film" put onto the glass. The film stops the burglar from breaking the window and reaching in to open your door. Safety film, at Quality Auto Trim in Spokane Valley, costs anywhere from $6 to $15 a square foot.

One of the best things you can do is talk about 'what if' scenarios. Colleen thought she had done that enough,but she was wrong. Snyder wants you and everyone inside your home to talk through 'what if' scenarios and he says you have three choices if an intruder does make entry into your home.

  • Run the other way – Distance is your friend.
  • Hide yourself – If you can't leave the house then hide in the furthest point of your home and barricade yourself.
  • Take a stand – This is a last resort if the intruder comes near you. Be prepared to say you have 911 on the phone.

"I've had people tell me, run out the front door, start screaming, that all sounds great but I panicked, so again I'm really hoping that as prepared as I thought I was, I was not, so I really want to stress that," Colleen said.

"Think it through, run those 'what if' scenarios," Snyder said.

Having a barking dog inside your home is a big deterrent to criminals. From the large dogs to the small 'yipping' dogs, no burglar, police say, wants to deal with a dog.

While the scenarios might be scary, the main goal of this report is to set up your home so that a criminal doesn't want to approach it.

Colleen says she's thankful the burglar did not come inside her house and instead elected to break into her garage. Deputy Snyder offered something unique to boost security in the garage.

"Covering things up like garage windows is a good thing, it's easy to do," Snyder said. "You can get some of the cheapest window coverings for that or even just paint over the inside of them to keep them from looking into your garage and seeing whether you're home or not."

It also prevents burglars from "window shopping." Snyder says burglars have a mental check list of items they're looking for – don't make it easy for them to window shop.

In Snyder's experience, property crimes are fueled by one thing only – drugs. And who better to confirm that than a convicted burglar. David Bassford is a repeat offender. Police say in September he threw a 62-year-old woman down a flight of stairs as he burglarized her home. During his interview with Colleen, he was in a yellow jumpsuit because he was on suicide watch.

Colleen: Is it drugs?
Bassford: Yeah, it's drugs, man.
Colleen: Why do you do it?
Bassford: I don't even... I can't quit! I've tried!

Bassford cried off and on during his interview. He told Colleen that he's addicted to heroin and meth and was black-out drunk when he broke into the woman's home.

Bassford: I don't even know, man. I don't even like to steal from people!
Colleen: But it seems like you knew what you were doing, knocking on the front door...
Bassford: Yeah, who doesn't? I grew up burglarizing houses when I was younger.

While Bassford doesn't remember knocking the 62-year-old woman down the stairs, which broke her arm, he did try to justice why burglary isn't "as bad" as other crimes.

Bassford: You're not hurting a person you're just taking some money.
Colleen: But you are because you take their sense of security.
Bassford: You're not physically... I don't even... UGH! I don't even know!

Bassford is proof that a drug-addicted person will stop at nothing to get their next fix. Knowing this, Colleen installed motion-sensor lighting right after her burglary. To her surprise, Deputy Snyder is not a fan. He suggests constant light.

"Criminals know about motion-sensor lighting and if it's two o'clock in the morning there's probably nobody around that's going to pay attention to that light," Snyder said. "In my opinion motion-sensor lighting should be in addition to [constant lighting], not in place of."

If you're going to keep a light on at all times at your house choose the bathroom light. Deputy Snyder says if they don't get an answer at the front door and proceed to the back of the house, they'll see the light and assume you didn't answer because you were in the shower.

Snyder also suggests planting "hostile shrubbery" like thorn and sticker bushes to surround low-lying windows. If you're not a fan of those, make sure to trim your shrubbery to three feet. Giving a burglar cover is only helping them get into your home.

If you're installing a privacy fence in the back yard, space the pickets at least a half-inch apart. Then, you can see if someone is prowling in your back yard.

"Criminals, believe it or not, pick up on that stuff so if we install fencing that we can see through a little bit that's a good thing," Snyder said.

Deputy Snyder found multiple things wrong with Colleen's home. But instead of feeling victimized or powerless Snyder wants to remind homeowners that they control their destiny – not the criminal.

"I want [Colleen] and I want citizens to feel empowered to keep themselves safe, quite honestly we're here, we'll respond when you think someone is trying to break into your house and is committing crimes, we want you to call us, but you need to know what you do or don't do really plays a huge part in your own personal safety," Snyder said.

Additional Resources:

House Inventory Form
Keep a list of all your valuables and their serial numbers

Home Security Evaluation
Does your house have what it takes to stop a burglar?

S.C.O.P.E. -- Spokane Community Oriented Policing Effort

SCOPE can help you evaluate your home security just as Deputy Greg Snyder did for Colleen O'Brien. SCOPE volunteers can also check your home for you when you're away on vacation. Been a victim of property crime? Let a SCOPE Volunteer try to lift fingerprints from your property.

Set up a Neighborhood Watch:
Email: neighborhoodwatch@spokanesheriff.org
Link to more resources: http://www.spokanecounty.org/sheriff/content.aspx?c=2047

C.O.P.S. -- Community Oriented Policing Services

Block Watch

Spokane Police Department Crime Map
What crime has happened in your neighborhood recently?