By Bill Kirk
---- — About 300 residents of West Andover filled the auditorium of the Wood Hill Middle and High Plain Elementary schools last week, seeking answers to a smattering of house break-ins plaguing their neighborhoods.
Sgt. Mark Higginbottom answered dozens of questions after giving a brief presentation of the problem along with some suggestions on how to thwart would-be burglars.
“We’re never going to stop it,” Higginbottom told the crowd, which gave him, detective Kevin Aufiero and police Chief Patrick Keefe a round of applause at the end of the meeting. “But together, we might be able to slow it down.”
The forum was organized by a grassroots group of West Andover residents who were concerned that since the beginning of the year, there have been four house breaks in their part of town, along with the occasional car break-in.
More worrisome was that there were three house breaks reported in less than a two-week period, starting on Monday, March 24, when someone broke into a house on Bailey Road between 12:30 and 2 p.m. and stole electronics and jewelry.
The following week, on April 9, someone broke into a house on Grey Birch Road by smashing a pane of glass on a door to the garage. Stereo equipment, a couple of laptops and a home amplifier were reported stolen, according to police. That break occurred at 5:45 p.m. when a 14-year-old girl was in the house. Higginbottom said the girl was in the shower during the break-in and didn’t realize the house had been robbed until after she got out.
Higginbottom said the Grey Birch Road break-in rattled people because there was someone home, but he told the anxious residents last week that in most cases, the burglars would rather not encounter anyone.
“That one was concerning to us,” he said. “We don’t usually see them that late.” He added that it is likely that whoever broke into that house “didn’t know someone was home.”
A third break-in occurred on Haggetts Pond Road on Monday, April 14, when someone pried open a rear door, entered the house and stole jewelry at around 10:25 a.m. In that case, a neighbor saw two men park in the driveway and walk around to the backyard.
The neighbor was able to get a license plate, which she gave to police, who are following up on leads although no arrests have been made. The only description of a possible suspect is a white male driving a small, green vehicle.
Higginbottom assured residents that in most cases, the would-be burglars would rather enter a home unnoticed, grab whatever is handy and valuable and then leave. He said the items are then usually sold at area pawn shops, with the money used to buy drugs.
So far, however, none of the items stolen in the three most recent incidents, or a fourth one earlier in the year also on the west side of town, have been recovered.
Higginbottom tried to stress to the crowd that the town is not facing a crisis.
“We’ve had six house breaks in town since Jan. 1,” he said. “Four on the west side of town. In 2013, there were 45 house breaks in a year.”
Five years ago, during the economic downturn in 2008, there were four or five house breaks a week, police said.
“Are we having an epidemic?” he said. “No.”
But, he added, “if you are a victim, it is a panic” situation.
One couple who attended the meeting said their Bailey Road house was broken into.
“Our son found it,” said the husband, who didn’t want his name used. “He came home and saw that the house had been broken into. He didn’t go in.”
Instead, he called his parents who called the police.
“They stole electronics and jewelry,” he said.
His wife added that her family has lived in the home since the 1970s and never had an incident like that. She said the police were very responsive.
“They came right over,” she said. “They sent three patrol cars. Their response was terrific.”
Others in the audience wanted to know what they should tell their children.
“I spoke with my son and we talked about if he was alone and has his cellphone, can he text 911,” one man said, “so the intruder doesn’t know he’s there.”
Higginbottom cautioned parents not to frighten their children.
He said the best way for them to notify police is by using a landline to call 911, which goes directly to the Andover police station and gives police an address.
Dialing 911 on a cellphone goes to the Framingham State Police headquarters, but is then forwarded immediately to Andover. He said the department did not have the capability to accept emergency text messages from residents.
Another resident wanted to know about response times.
Keefe said that there are so many officers now patrolling west Andover that response times are within two minutes in 95 percent of the cases. But in rare instances, response can take up to four to six minutes if a call is made in the middle of a shift change and all the officers are at the central station downtown.
However, he said, “if the word ‘child’ is mentioned, you’ll get the whole shift there” right away.
Keefe, Higginbottom and Aufiero suggested people call anytime of day or night if they see or hear anything suspicious. One thing people might see are suspicious drug transactions. Higginbottom said that many times drug buyers will meet dealers in culs-de-sac for quick sales that last only a few minutes.
“If you see that, give us a call,” he said.
Others wanted to know about security systems and dogs and whether they would thwart a would-be burglar.
“They are a deterrent,” Higginbottom said. “Do people still kick in the door and leave? Yes. Sometimes they’ll grab something and leave.”
By the time police arrive, they are gone.
In other cases, a dog or an alarm sounding will serve as a deterrent and prompt the perpetrators to depart.
For children who may be home alone, he said, a good thing to do when the doorbell rings or someone knocks at the door is to go to a window, preferably on the second floor, with a phone in hand, and look outside. If the person sees that someone is home, and that they are on the phone, most of the time they will just leave.
“Why break into that home when I can go down the street and break into another home where nobody’s home?” he said, conveying the possible thinking of a potential burglar.
Higginbottom said he was surprised by the turnout for last week’s meeting, and in fact had made only 50 copies of a handout offering tips for residents to make their homes safer.
“We weren’t expecting this many people,” he said after the meeting.
He credited organizers for putting details about the meeting out through Facebook and email.