Living off campus for the first time, Alex Stout, a junior at UW-Eau Claire, has signed up for a free service to protect his home during Thanksgiving break.
“When students are gone, their houses are kind of like sitting ducks” for would-be burglars, the computer science and information systems major from Baraboo said.
Hoping to combat that, the UW-Eau Claire Student Senate has partnered with the Eau Claire Police Department to create the House Watch program. Through the program, students must register their residences for each break they want their houses to be monitored by police during their regular patrols of neighborhoods.
Upticks in residential burglaries and thefts during school breaks are driving the program, said Eau Claire police Lt. Greg Weber, who oversees the program for the Police Department.
“Students have nice stuff, (like laptops and TVs), and if there are a lot of them living in a house, there’s a lot of nice stuff,” he said.
That said, “it’s not hard to know the schedule of (university) breaks, and when (students) are gone, it provides a lot of opportunity for people to commit a crime.”
Officials began putting House Watch, which also aims to educate students about steps they can take to better secure their residences, together in 2014, Weber said.
When students register their homes, they are asked to provide information, including their contact information, their departure and return dates and information about the general appearance of their residences to help officers gauge if something doesn’t look right, Weber said.
Mainly during the department’s midnight shift, officers will get out of their squad cars to regularly check on residences mostly in the Randall Park and 3rd Ward neighborhoods while students are gone.
While he supports the House Watch program, Stout, who sits on the Student Senate’s Executive Board, is hoping he doesn’t get a call from police indicating there is a problem at his home while he’s gone.
If students are gone for a week or two and return home to find their residences have been broken into, they often don’t know when entry to their home was made, said Bridget Coit, an Eau Claire Police Department spokeswoman. By having officers check homes while students are gone, officers have a better idea when a crime has occurred, which helps its solvability.
There are similar programs across the country, including Vacant House Watch, a Marquette University Police Department program, which the Eau Claire program is modeled after.
More Marquette students living in the near-off-campus neighborhoods are registering for the program now that they can do so online, said Ruth Peterson, captain of support services for the Milwaukee University Police Department.
Like the local program, the goal of the Milwaukee program is to deter would-be burglars or vandals from targeting vacant residences.
“We haven’t had a single house (being watched by officers through the program) burglarized ever,” Peterson said.
The number of students registering their residences during school breaks varies, Peterson said. Two years ago, 40 registered for winter break, but last year that number dropped to 20.
“Many more sign up for winter break than spring break,” said Peterson, noting winter break is the longer of the two. For spring break, about 10 to 15 students register each year.
In Eau Claire, 14 students registered their homes for Thanksgiving break and 17 for winter break in 2015, Weber said. Last year, 22 students registered for Thanksgiving and 58 for winter break.
While the House Watch program is just for UW-Eau Claire students, Eau Claire police offered the following tips for anyone planning to be away from home for a period of time:
• Lock the doors and windows to the home and garage.
• Leave lights on or schedule them to go on using a timer.
• Have a family member, friend or neighbor check on the property.
• Have someone shovel the sidewalk and driveway or at least drive into the drive if it snows to make it look as if someone is home.
• Stop mail and newspaper delivery while gone.
• Don’t broadcast absence on social media.
• Use a smartphone to photograph the property in the home, including serial numbers.
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