After three years patrolling Johnson County, a sheriff’s deputy can immediately spot the areas in neighborhoods that are most at risk for break-ins.

With no streetlights or porch lights and homes dark for the evening, no one can see someone walking around looking for unlocked doors or getting into a vehicle parked on the street.

As part of his nightly patrol, Johnson County Sheriff’s Office Deputy Joe Pierce turns off his headlights and watches for movement. He notices if a garage door is left open or a car door is slightly ajar. He’s never caught someone in the act — yet.

In the past three months, more than 40 vehicles have been hit by thieves looking for money, phones and prescription medication. Nearly all of the break-ins were reported in the Center Grove area. Break-ins also have been reported in Franklin and Bargersville.

Since the break-ins began, the sheriff’s office has expanded its efforts to catch the thieves. Deputies are required to patrol multiple neighborhoods per night, if possible, looking for anything out of the ordinary, such as vehicle doors ajar or garage doors left open. Of the seven or eight deputies on duty each night, they rotate which neighborhoods they canvass on a regular basis and talk about who has been where, so criminals don’t ever see a pattern.

Investigators also are watching the bank accounts and credits cards of residents whose wallets or purses have been stolen for anyone using them, with the goal of tracking the thieves on surveillance video.

Recently, two Greenwood teens were arrested, and police are looking for a third person. They were shown on surveillance video using the debit card of a woman whose car was broken into earlier this month in the Pebble Hills neighborhood. The night of the break-ins, deputies spent hours scouring the neighborhood with police dogs but weren’t able to find the people who broke into at least four vehicles.

Catching a thief in the act is rare, but residents can provide vital information to lead police to the criminal, Pierce said.

Residents should keep on file the serial numbers of items such as iPods, cellphones and laptops. That way, if the items are stolen and the thief sells the item at a pawn shop, the item can be recovered, and police can try to track the thief, Pierce said. Years ago, one resident had a TV and DVD player stolen from his home. Because the resident had the serial numbers written down, investigators found the stolen equipment at a pawn shop just down the street, Pierce said.

Residents also can help by being on the lookout in their neighborhood and giving police descriptions such as clothing or body type of anyone suspicious they see in the neighborhood, .

The top precautions police say residents can take: Lock your doors and leave your porch light on.

Most theft cases involve vehicles that are unlocked and parked on the street, officials said. If two criminals are searching for things to steal, one can drive to the darkest locations in the subdivision and the other can try tugging on door handles to see if they open with no trouble, Pierce said.

“I’d say most of the calls we respond to theft-wise, there’s no damage to the vehicle,” Pierce said. “The opportunity is right there. They pull the handle, it opens up, and ‘Yea.’ An alarm doesn’t go off, nothing’s set. They could spend all day in there.”

Residents either fall into a routine of forgetting to lock their doors or they figure their neighborhood is safe enough, Pierce said.

Residents get used to leaving garage doors open all night, with no motion sensor lights set to stop a thief from walking in. Pierce regularly sees four or five garage doors left open every night in his own neighborhood, and he walks up, knocks on their door and asks them if they’re aware their garage door is open, he said.

Most of the time, residents had no idea their garage door was left open, Pierce said. He would rather wake up a resident in the middle of the night to protect their property than for that same resident to have to contact police the next day, he said. Pierce said he has had items stolen from his vehicle before, so that is one hassle he wants to prevent for residents.

Sheriff’s deputies also have been going to multiple neighborhoods to give residents advice on how they can make their home less attractive to thieves, including keeping porch lights on overnight, replacing burned out street lamp bulbs and installing motion sensor lights on homes.

Sheriff’s deputies have attended about a dozen homeowner association meetings since Jan. 1, Maj. Jerry Picket said. Silver Springs and Wakefield recently had items stolen from cars overnight and asked deputies to share tips about how to prevent that from happening again, Pierce said.

Although it may cost a few extra dollars in utilities each month, keeping your porch light on is cheaper than having to replace valuables and going through the hassle of reporting your items stolen, Pierce said. And if lights are already turned on overnight, pulling a car into your driveway could also keep a thief at bay, he said.

“If you can get away with putting it in your driveway, put it in your driveway,” he said.

Once a vehicle is in a driveway, thieves are less likely to look into the windows or try opening the door, Pierce said. Being that close to a house makes it more likely for them to be seen by someone, to be caught on home security footage or to set off motion sensor lights.

After a deputy visits a subdivision meeting, it is up to the residents to take the advice and put it into action, he said. Typically, residents turn on their lights or replace burned out bulbs immediately after the meeting, but weeks later, they fall back into their former routine, he said.

“A lot of it is begging for the public’s assistance in locking your doors,” Pierce said.

At a glance

Here are tips from Deputy Joe Pierce on how to better secure your belongings:

  • Lock the doors of your vehicle.
  • Pull your vehicle into your driveway.
  • Keep car parked near a streetlight.
  • Turn on your front porch or garage lights.
  • If you keep expensive belongings in your car, cover them with a blanket.
  • Keep serial numbers of laptops, phones, iPods or other equipment.