In response to a recent uptick in break-ins, thefts and other property crimes, the Petaluma Police Department has created a new property crimes unit featuring an additional officer on loan from the California Highway Patrol, and has instituted two new crime-reporting tools for the general public.

"We've seen a 14 percent increase in burglaries alone from 2011 to 2012," said Police Lt. Tim Lyons. "These new measures will not only help us catch these criminals and get them off the street, they will also help us identify trends and better utilize our resources."

Less than two months into the job, CHP Officer Blair Hardcastle — whose salary will continue to be paid by the CHP even though he will be working out of Petaluma's Police Department for the next year — has already made several arrests as the newest member of Petaluma's two-person property crimes unit. In January, Hardcastle arrested a man for methamphetamine sales at the Motel 6 on North McDowell Boulevard. And just last week, Hardcastle was involved in the arrest of Kirk Tuft Johnson, a 52-year-old Petaluma resident suspected of burglary, possession of stolen property and unlawful use of credit cards. The arrest came on the heels of one of Johnson's neighbors identifying him on a store's surveillance video using stolen credit cards. Property crimes detectives said the neighbor reported a home break-in on Jan. 20, alleging that computers, jewelry and credit cards were stolen from the residence. After Hardcastle secured the surveillance tapes and the victim positively identified Johnson, the property crimes unit searched Johnson's home and vehicle. Investigators recovered stolen items from the Jan. 20 break-in, along with 153 keys, 60 of which belonged to vehicles. The keys were apparently stolen from under the tires of surfers' vehicles. Property crimes investigators linked Johnson to at least two other thefts from vehicles along the North Coast and are checking all other similar auto burglary cases in the area for possible matches.

Hardcastle began working with Petaluma police after Chief Patrick Williams reached out to the CHP for collaboration.

From the CHP's perspective, partnering with local law enforcement is a win-win for both law enforcement agencies. "For us, it's an opportunity to send our officers out to work with investigative units and bring back those skills, which Highway Patrol is not typically exposed to," said CHP Officer Jonathan Sloat. "We've done it in the past with other jurisdictions and it's worked really well."

Currently, the property crimes unit is investigating several other cases, including a man who was robbed early Monday morning at gunpoint while walking home from the 7Eleven store on Howard Street.

"This unit will be tackling crime that affects the quality of life in Petaluma and other nearby areas," said Lyons. "It's an area of crime that accounts for a lot of our time, but is also under reported. We think that having the extra officer devoted to this problem, along with our new reporting tools, will help us curtail these issues."

One of the tools the Police Department recently released to aid in the fight against this type of crime is a crime reporting website. For the first time, the department has stepped into the digital realm of policing by allowing residents within city limits to fill out non-violent, non-emergency police reports online, using a tool called Cop Logic.

In the past, victims of property crimes such as hit and runs, burglaries, harassing phone calls, certain types of fraud, identity theft and vandalism had to speak to an officer in person to file a report or wait for the department to mail them a hard copy of a police report.

"The online police reports will save the department time and resources because that system is automatically linked into our records," said Lyons, who added that approximately 300 crimes reported last year would now fall under the online reporting system. "This will help us have a better idea of what crime problems are occurring in any given area of town and allow us to identify trends and better utilize our patrols."

Lyons pointed out that in the past, when reports were mailed to the department, or officers took them manually, it required a lot of time to get them into the department's records database. He said that having the online reporting tool will not only reduce staff time, but will also automatically link these types of crimes with other, similar crime trends in the area.

The online reporting software cost approximately $18,500 and was paid for by the the department's asset seizure fund — money taken by the police during certain arrests.

Along with this new reporting system, the department has also added a crime tip hotline, which police are hoping will generate calls from people who may not normally report suspicious circumstances they witness.

"We encourage people to leave a name and contact number and we will not reveal their identity if they request the tip to be anonymous," said Lyons. "But, anonymous tips can be helpful too, so we are encouraging the community to get involved."

Lyons said that both the online crime reporting tool and the tip hotline are not meant to report in-progress or emergency crimes. For that type of crime, citizens should call 9-1-1. "But when your car gets broken into overnight, we want to know about it," said Lyons.

The department's online crime reporting tool can be found at http://cityofpetaluma.net/police/crimereport.html. The Petaluma Police Department's crime tip hotline is 781-1200.

(Contact Janelle Wetzstein at janelle.wetzstein@arguscourier.com)