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Burglaries rose in Lower Merion in 2013

The number of burglaries in Lower Merion Township rose in 2013 for the third straight year and last year's tally was the highest in the last decade.

The number of burglaries in Lower Merion Township rose in 2013 for the third straight year and last year's tally was the highest in the last decade.

Still, earlier history offers one point of comfort: At least it's not 1980.

Year-end statistics released this week by Lower Merion police show that 256 residential and commercial burglaries occurred within the township's 24 square miles in 2013. That's up from 2012, when there were 195 burglaries and from 2011's total of 185.

"We feel the current increase is drug-fueled," police superintendent Michael J. McGrath said. Many burglars, he said, sell what they steal for money to buy drugs.

The township, with a population of about 60,000, experienced a spike in these crimes beginning in July, in Merion, Bala Cynwyd, Gladwyne, and around Penn Wynne, police said.

The home break-ins usually are fast, daytime jobs done after the would-be burglar has checked out a street and perhaps even knocked on the door of a house to see if anyone is home, police said. The person smashes a door window, reaches in to open the door and grabs something left in the kitchen or jewlery from the master bedroom. That's the pattern police usually see.

Small items, especially jewelry and portable electronics, are the primary targets.

Lifelong Bala Cynwyd resident Eileen Plociennik, 68, didn't need statistics to tell her burglaries have been rising recently.

Several neighbors' homes have been hit. Her retired husband has a new hobby because of it: He walks up and down their street "to make sure what's going on."

"It's kind of scary," Plociennik said from behind the circulation desk at the Bala Cynwyd Library on Old Lancaster Road, where she works.

"I do think police are doing a good job," she said. "I see police cars going up and down the street."

Still, arrests in burglary cases are relatively rare. In 2012, police made arrests in just 7.7 percent of burglary cases and identified suspects in 13.3 percent. Last year, police made arrests in 11.3 percent of the cases and identified the person they believed responsible in 18.8 percent.

Not all identifications result in prosecutions, police said, due to factors that include insufficient evidence or a victim not wanting to cooperate with authorities.

Burglars can be difficult to catch, McGrath said, partly because more houses are empty during the day because adults are working, and partly because burglars work so quickly that they often are gone before police can be notified. And rarely, these days, do they leave fingerprints, McGrath said.

A community meeting in November filled the 175-person capacity boardroom at the township's administration building to hear police discuss the situation.

"We accommodated some of the [standing-room only] crowd in our caucus room down the hall, where they watched on live TV," township spokesman Thomas Walsh said.

One of the slides shown at that gathering was the average rate of burglaries decade by decade since the 1970s. The average in the 1970s was 643. In the 1980s, it was 473, and in the 1990s, it was 220. The first decade of this century saw the average drop to 156. The average at the time of the November presentation was 213.

The single year with the most burglaries was in 1980, when 953 occurred. McGrath said that record tracks with ballooning prices for gold and silver.

Between 1980 and 2013, the numbers have fluctuated.

It's too early to tell if burglaries will continue to rise in 2014, McGrath said, though the recent cold temperatures usually discourage burglars from their work.

Drew Melman, owner of Main Line Security and Energy Services in Wynnewood, has been installing security systems in Lower Merion homes for years.

"I've had lots of inquires and installed several new alarms basically because of the burglaries," he said.

But he doesn't advise everyone who calls to get an alarm system.

"Burglars are in and out so fast, it probably doesn't matter if you have an alarm," he said. "I've been recommending to people to hide their jewelry and make it look like there is somebody home."