Auto thefts soared, shootings dipped in ’20 1

Capt. John O’Connell, the commander of the 109th Precinct, looks forward to tackling rising crime in 2021.

If it weren’t for the jump in auto thefts, the 109th Precinct would have had a fantastic year, the commanding officer said.

In 2020, the large command reported a 73 percent increase from 2019. The significant jump, coupled with a 27 percent rise in burglaries, contributed to an overall 2 percent rise in crime for the year.

“Those are crimes of opportunity,” Capt. John O’Connell said in a Jan. 7 interview. “We’re going through very tough times, high unemployment, people are down. When an opportunity presents itself, people take it.”

Auto thefts have plagued all five boroughs this year — the city reported a 70 percent increase since 2019.

The commander said most of the crimes are made accessible for culprits because vehicle owners leave their keys or remote start fobs inside. Surveillance footage recovered from incidents often show perpetrators check the driver’s side door handle on every car on the block until one opens, making theft easy. The crime could be drastically cut if owners took their key with them and locked their doors, O’Connell warned.

The commander speculated that burglaries also rose because of growing desperation caused by the pandemic. In the spring, many Downtown Flushing commercial businesses were targeted while they were indefinitely shut down. College Point and Whitestone saw a good deal of residential burglaries throughout the year, which O’Connell chalks up to weak home security.

He said some homeowners leave their doors or windows unlocked even when no one is home. In many cases, perpetrators ring the doorbell before walking to the back entrance to let themselves in. “There’s a level of comfort which is great, I’m glad we provide that, but we get taken advantage of by the bad guys because of that comfort.”

Several crimes in the precinct did drop, however: rape by 19 percent, felony assault by 14 percent, grand larceny by 7 percent and robbery by 4 percent. Murders stayed stagnant at 3 incidents for both 2019 and 2020.

While the rest of the city reported a surge in shootings, the 109th Precinct was one of the few to report a decline. There were over 1,500 incidents across the five boroughs in 2020, a whopping 97 percent increase. The 109 had only seven, one fewer than last year.

“I give our cops a lot of credit. That’s precision policing. Those who fire a weapon — it’s a small amount of people and we do a good job identifying those who have shown that type of violence,” the captain said.

O’Connell, who took command of the 109 in October, has his sights set on significantly reducing crime in the coming year and has a few ideas on how to get it done.

For auto thefts, the commander is leading a push to enforce summonses for those who leave their car running but unattended. Coffee shops, for example, are a major hot spot for crimes because drivers don’t believe they’ll become a victim of a crime in the five minutes it takes to buy their drink.

For burglaries, O’Connell will station his officers at major thoroughfares where crime tends to occur in an effort to scare off the perpetrators. He added they are typically committed by repeat offenders, which is an aspect his team is taking into consideration.

Drag racing, which has posed a problem in neighboring precincts as well, can be addressed through infrastructure changes such speed cameras, speed bumps and dividers in parking lots the drivers like to meet up in, O’Connell said. The effort will be a joint operation with community partners.

The year was tough, the captain said, but was made easier through the help of the neighborhood, even as tensions between police and city residents reached a peak in the summer.

“They’re pushing us. They want us to do better, they want better quality of life, they’re jumping on board and doing it with us,” O’Connell said, noting that the community is largely supportive of law enforcement. “We can’t be afraid of being asked to be better ... But if you ask me, help me do it ... stick around and tell us how.”

O’Connell emphasized the importance of the relationship, applauding his officers for their diligent work and for the community staying informed.

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