The number of cases involving thieves stealing car keys from homes and fleeing in stolen vehicles has doubled in just three months.
And senior officers believe it is a crime wave co-ordinated by a relatively small group of criminals based in north Edinburgh.
The north and west and Pentlands police districts – spanning areas including Gyle, Balerno, Cramond, West Pilton and Leith – are the hardest hit, while central and south areas have actually seen a drop in break-ins of up to 30 per cent.
Now a new “targeted and direct” operation involving 100 officers, headed by Superintendent Matt Richards, is being launched to crack down on the gangs.
Supt Richards said: “We will get a grip of this. We are going to get ahead of it.
“We have 30 or 40 individuals in the north that we are now targeting. The theft of cars from housebreakings is particularly important for us.”
It is understood stolen cars are being used as getaway vehicles for subsequent break-ins, before being abandoned, burnt out or sold on. In addition to targeting car keys, they also look for “easy hits” in a raid, including jewellery, cash and devices such as iPads.
Dedicated housebreaking drive Operation RAC has been resurrected with a plethora of resources, including officers from elsewhere in the national force.
Measures include fast-tracking forensic work for Edinburgh cases, and deploying plain-clothed officers and specialist support teams with video equipment.
Talks are also ongoing with officials in the justice system to ensure that young repeat offenders are given appropriate punishments.
Supt Richards said: “Criminals know no boundaries, so we won’t. We have taken officers from across the city to form the RAC teams – they have experience across the city and that breadth of knowledge means that our point of contact can change as quickly as the criminals.”
He and the Capital’s police boss, Chief Superintendent Mark Williams, acknowledged the trend was concerning but insisted the crackdown was a priority.
Up to 60 uniformed and plain-clothed officers have been enlisted to specifically deal with the gangs, and police are confident the crackdown will also have a knock-on effect on associated disorder and violent crime.
They are liaising with colleagues in the Lothian and Borders areas as it is believed city-based criminals are also operating in outlying areas.
And 28 officers – including four sergeants and an inspector – from Fife, Forth Valley and Lothians and Borders will be working with Capital police throughout April to boost high-visibility patrols.
Additional roads policing teams, specialist support officers wearing on-body cameras and the force helicopter will all be used as part of the drive.
“When you throw in all the specialists, there are close to 150 officers working on this,” said Supt Richards. “That’s not on a whim. It’s because the public has told us. There has been a 100 per cent increase over the last few months. We are recovering vehicles almost instantaneously, if not over two or three days.”
There were 23 cases of cars being stolen as a result of a housebreaking in January, rising to 53 in February.
Supt Richards added: “This is a very directed and targeted approach to combat a key group of individuals. These people are not acting with impunity. Our current arrest rate with RAC is that 50 to 60 per cent are arrested within a two-week period.
“We are fast-tracking all forensic opportunities – removing DNA, fingerprints, footprint samples – and we are given precedence across Scotland in terms of having that moved through quickly. It’s just not possible to be in your car, break in to a house and leave no trace of yourself.”
Police are also considering plans to publish registration plates of stolen vehicles on social media.
Supt Richards said ongoing talks with the Crown Office and Scottish Children’s Reporter Agency (SCRA) were “really important”.
He said: “We do sometimes have to fight with one arm tied behind our back with juveniles who are over 16 but are on supervision. Often that’s for good reasons, but what we’re speaking to SCRA about is those who shouldn’t be on supervision, so they can be dealt with as adults.
“Multiple housebreakers are dealt with on petition, meaning the offender will be in custody. It gives the community some respite.”
Thieves use stolen cars as getaway cars for other housebreakings, however they sometimes park them to assess whether there is a tracking device on them.
In some cases, they put cloned plates on to the cars, and a “small percentage” are being sold off. Officers have picked up on a “pattern of behaviour” which involves the criminals “hiding” the cars elsewhere in the city.
Supt Richards said: “There is a key group using the same method in the same sorts of areas. What makes it difficult is that these areas are massive, like West Pentlands. There are a huge numbers of roads in and out. It’s a needle in a haystack, but we have beat officers who are recovering a huge percentage of them.”
He added: “We only have about 15 to 20 vehicles which we can’t locate over the last few months, which is a drop in the ocean. Those are the vehicles which have been hidden away or burnt out, or sold on, but the market to get a valuable vehicle sold is quite a sophisticated thing.”
Senior bosses are keen to stress that the culprits of the break-ins are “not a lawless mob of hundreds of people”.
Officers have also been co-ordinating with the Chamber of Commerce, small firms and second-hand dealers to stem break-ins to business premises.
And the police chiefs want to reassure residents that armed housebreakings are “extremely infrequent”, while other forms of “dishonesty” are going down.
“Overall crimes of dishonesty in the city are static but we recognise the issue with houses,” said Ch Supt Williams.
“We recognise there is an issue with housebreaking, with break-ins and attempted break-ins up about ten per cent year on year. The detection rate has risen from 29 per cent to 32 per cent.”
He said he wanted to highlight a drop in violent crime and a consistent decrease in common thefts. “We will relentlessly pursue [these criminals]. If the public help us, it will make a difference. We will pursue these individuals and we will bring them to justice.”
Be vigilant in your home
Residents across the Capital are being urged to take preventative measures to avoid being targeted.
Keeping keys hidden from sight and away from doors and windows is one of the main pieces of advice.
If you are going out for the night or a longer period, arrange for a timer to switch lights on, to give the impression someone is in.
Take particular care if you are going on holiday by getting your neighbours to check on your house and pick up mail or papers.
Householders are also advised to be careful about announcing holiday plans on social media.
Supt Richards said: “There is a perception that people’s houses are being broken into while they sleep. It happens, but the vast majority is folk away from their homes and they are not doing basic preventative measures. Criminals monitor empty houses.”
You can also mark property with a UV kit such as SmartWater to deter thieves. Free home security checks can be arranged with local officers, while police advice events are also being run in the city.
‘Some older residents have suffered repeat break-ins’
Several householders in the north and west of the city have contacted the Evening News to raise concerns about housebreaking levels.
One resident in East Craigs described the current situation as “complete lawlessness”.
He said: “I would like to know what’s happening to Edinburgh, why we have suddenly got this problem. I have lived here for over 20 years and never been bothered with burglary before.”
Another city resident spoke of his concerns following a spate of break-ins in Blackhall. He said his parents and their elderly neighbours were “living in terror” about being targeted by gangs of thieves in stolen cars.
Garry Morrison, who runs Morrisons Alarms, said he had never been so busy in more than three decades of business.
Mr Morrison said: “It’s probably one of the worst times for housebreakings. I have never had as many people on the phone saying their neighbours have been broken into.
“The biggest increase with us is home CCTV. It’s a deterrent. The technology has vastly improved, we can link it up with a client’s mobile phone or laptop.”
He added: “If it’s an older customer, they are the ones I feel for. I think it hits them more. Some of them have had repeat break-ins. One I spoke to had been broken into four times.”
Meanwhile, in East Lothian, officers are investigating after a housebreaking in the Inveresk area of Musselburgh on Tuesday between 8.45am and 3.50pm.
The owner’s son came home from school to find the house alarm sounding and several items, including a laptop and jewellery, missing.
It is believed he may have disturbed the suspects, however he did not see anyone on the premises.
Pc Kenny MacKenzie said: “This had been an upsetting incident for the homeowners, which has left their property with two damaged windows. Anyone who saw any suspicious activity in the area, or who has any information, is urged to contact police.”