From the Department of Things That Shouldn't Need To Be Said: Don't leave your car running if you're not inside it.
Especially if your kids are inside.
Buffalo police are reminding people that it's a terrible idea to leave your car running, even if you're just running into a store, the ATM or even back into your house for just a second.
Auto thefts in the city often involve keys left in the ignition or inside the vehicle, said Buffalo Police Capt. Jeff Rinaldo. “It’s not worth the risk, and it’s definitely not worth the fine or jail sentence, so please shut your car off, lock it, and take the keys.”
It's also illegal. Leaving a vehicle unattended while running is a violation of state vehicle and traffic laws – a $238 ticket and up to 15 days in jail, if you're convicted.
Doesn't seem like a big deal? Take for instance what happened when a Buffalo mother left her 2-month-old baby inside a running and unlocked SUV while going into a liquor store in Riverside: The vehicle was stolen – with the baby girl still inside – prompting a frantic, regionwide search. About an hour and 45 minutes later, someone brought the baby to a Niagara Falls hospital, claiming at first that he had found her on the side of the road. Ultimately, the mother was charged with endangering the welfare of a child and two teenagers were charged with stealing the car.
"It happened in the blink of an eye," Rinaldo said during a news conference about the incident last year.
The police this month launched their annual campaign to prevent auto thefts, funded in part by a grant from the state Division of Criminal Justice Services. Officers, including those with the BPD's Neighborhood Engagement Team, are conducting details looking for unattended, running cars. They're going to neighborhoods throughout the city, including popular shopping areas like the Elmwood Village, as well as areas where recent car thefts have been reported, police said.
In most cases, the cops are offering stern reminders to drivers and handing them a pamphlet with information and auto theft prevention tips. But they are handing out tickets, in the more blatant cases.
Earlier this month, Lt. Marcus Rogowski and Officers Matt Inglut and Ryan Crespo were on patrol. Within three minutes of starting their detail in the Black Rock and Riverside areas, they spotted a Nissan Sentra running and unattended outside the Mega-Mart on Tonawanda Street, just a few blocks away from where the SUV with the baby was stolen.
"That's a nice car," Rogowski said, pointing out that Nissan Sentras are the seventh-most targeted vehicles in Buffalo, according to their records. The car was filled with bags and boxes.
The driver came out of the store, her eyes wide at the sight of the police officers by her car.
"I was just running into the store to grab a sandwich," the driver, Angelica Rivera said. She was in the process of moving some of her belongings to her new home.
It hadn't occurred to her that what she was doing was against the law.
"I really never paid attention to that," she said.
"There are a lot of statistics about cars being stolen," Crespo said as Inglut handed her a pamphlet – not a ticket.
She got back in her car and parked it legally, then came back to the store for her sandwich.
The officers handed the store owner a pamphlet to display at the shop.
"It's not just her," said owner Ali Abdul, who taped the tips on the front door. "Everyone does it."
A few minutes later, the officers rolled up on a running Mercury in front of Caz Mini Mart on Hertel Avenue. Inside the car was a little girl in a pink puffy coat belted into a car seat – and no one else inside.
A woman came running out.
She explained to the officers that her daughter, who is 4, was sick with a virus and her other child was home sick, too. The little girl was asking for a snack – puffs – and she was running into the store to get them. She was going to get in line but saw a big group in front of her and realized it would take too long. That's when she dashed out and saw the police.
"I didn't want to drag her in and out," said the woman, who refused to give her name to The Buffalo News. She also pointed out that she had locked the car.
The officers gave her a ticket. They warned her that they could have also charged her with endangering the welfare of a child as well – a misdemeanor – but didn't. They gave the little girl, who was calm throughout the interaction, some Halloween candy and a plastic police badge.
The patrol headed east, where the officers came across two more running cars: a man who left his BMW running outside a Bailey Avenue liquor store and a mom who left her 13-year-old daughter in a running car in front of a Broadway beauty shop.
"I know, I know," the mom said. Because of the girl's age, the police decided against giving a ticket. Both the BMW driver and the mom were handed pamphlets.
There's a misconception that car thieves are lurking in the dark, then hot-wiring cars, Rogowski said. It's most often the case that the thief sees a running car and takes advantage of the situation – a crime of opportunity.
"In my 10 years, I've never seen a steering column that's popped open," he said.
Other common sense tips from the police include:
• Park in well-lighted areas.
• Lock your vehicle’s doors and close the windows.
• Install a car alarm or anti-theft device.
• Lock valuables in the trunk or keep them somewhere out of sight.
• Keep your car keys in safe place, even at home. Many stolen vehicles are taken by friends and family.