What I Stole On My Summer Vacation

Written by: William Morder & Nik Kovac

Many of us remember having to write the dreaded essay explaining what we did during our summer months away from school. We might have gone to summer camp, or on a trip with our parents. Maybe we got involved in sports, took up a hobby, or just spent the summer reading every book in the library.

Some Milwaukee kids have taken up a new sort of “summer job” – burglary, car theft, and other crimes against property. These kids do not have to write essays about what they did. And in many cases, they do not have to do time for their crimes, even if they get caught. Because they are juveniles, they often fall through the cracks in the criminal justice system.

They cannot be prosecuted as adults unless the crimes are extraordinary. According to police, nonviolent teenage offenders are often released into their parents’ custody within 24 hours. “When we take them out to the Children’s Court Center,” explained Ray Robakowski, District 5’s Community Liason Officer, “they don’t stay there.”

Last month three boys suspected of a string of burglaries in Riverwest were arrested. Statements made by those detainees led to the arrest of two alleged accomplices. Milwaukee police are not yet sure of the exact number of incidents, but they expect that the five kids – ranging in age from 11 to 16 – will eventually be charged with dozens of break-ins.

For the year, burglaries throughout District 5, which stretches from the lake all the way to 16th Street, are up about 20%, with 27 more overall than at this time last year. Riverwest alone has had 43 burglaries so far this year.

The scale of the problem throughout the city is so great and the offenders so numerous that various social services cannot help. “The [Children’s Court] Center,” explained Robakowski, “is not like it used to be.”

At last month’s District 5 Crime Reduction meeting, Robakowski described the current juvenile system as a “mess,” complaining that prosecutors and judges don’t seem to have the time to deal with younger offenders. In a later phone interview, however, he was more diplomatic. “I don’t see it as a problem,” he reasoned, “because it’s the only system we have.”

As a rule, these young burglars continue doing what they have learned until they are caught. Even then, they will most likely be sent straight back home within a week or so, and return to the same old thing.

Obviously, in a situation like this, everybody loses – not just those of us who lose a television set, laptop computer or iPod. The biggest losers are these kids who have no sense of hope for their future, who have learned only how to steal things to get what they want. The street value of stolen items runs roughly as follows: Xboxes and Nintendos ($20); iPods ($10-15); laptops or digital cameras ($25-50). District 5 police do not think the juveniles recently apprehended were linked up with an organized fencing operation. Instead, they were selling what they could, when they could, on the street.

Overall, Robakowski was quick to remind the crowd, the big crime numbers aren’t noticeably worse. To date, there have been 14 homicides in District 5 this year, which is the same number as last year. Ten of those have been solved, nine within four days.

The summer, however, has not been without its law  enforcement glitches. Two months ago, the main topic of conversation at the Crime Reduction meeting was a dispatching error surrounding an attempted burglary on the 3400 block of North Pierce Street. One home had already been burglarized, and then the owners of a nearby house walked in on a second crime in progress. They managed to detain – temporarily – the young offenders.

According to several police officers and 911 dispatchers at the August meeting, however, the dispatcher somehow did not grasp the urgency of the situation, and failed to properly categorize the 911 call. “A burglary in progress is a priority 1 call,” explained a senior dispatcher, “and our internal transcripts included a description of the people. But on our end we thought the callers had witnessed them fleeing.”

At some point between the initial phone call and the arrival of a squad car 50 minutes later, the teenage burglars fashioned an escape. Apparently, it took a second 911 from the homeowners to clarify matters. “After their second call,” explained the dispatcher, “we got there in just nine minutes. We can only dispatch based on what we know.”

Despite this high-profile incident, and the recent uptick in Riverwest burglaries, the public safety committee of the RNA (Riverwest Neighborhood Association) does not see our neighborhood as unique. “This is a city-wide problem,” reasoned committee chair Tim Vertz.

“It’s happening everywhere,” agreed committee member Nancy Vogel, “including Wauwatosa. It’s not just Riverwest.”

Mayor Tom Barrett made an appearance at District 5’s August meeting inside the police station on 4th and Locust. He agreed that the teenage crime problem is a city-wide issue. The city’s top elected official even offered an opinion as to some of its root causes. “If you look back,” he said, “in 1993 Milwaukee had its highest rate of teen pregnancies. Those kids are now 14 years old.”

Now that summer vacations are officially over, the seasonal crime trends are expected to shift. Robakowski was quick to point out that truancy enforcement will be a major part of the new Safe Streets Initiative, an innovative restorative justice program that the city is debuting in Riverwest.