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Fight on against Hatch beggars, thieves
Concerns about assorted crimes and increased panhandling driving away off customers prompted Hatch Road business and property owners to discuss solutions Thursday afternoon with Ceres police and Ceres Chamber of Commerce officials.

The leaders met at Rico's Pizza, where on Dec. 18 windows were smashed by thieves in an attempt to steal the cash dispensing machine. Rico's manager Jesse Aguilar said he's appreciated seeing more police patrol cars circling through the shopping center south of Hatch Road in recent weeks and feels safer.

"Their presence keeps away bad people," said Aguilar.

Police stepped up patrols in the Hatch Road commercial district during December when shoplifting and theft reaches its zenith. But ultimately, Ceres Police Lt. Brent Smith told the group, hiring a private security company is the best way to ward off would-be thieves and burglars. Smith told the business people that police can only do so much since higher priority calls often keep officers busy elsewhere in the city. The Ceres City Council even resorted to contracting with Ontel Security to keep down thefts in city parks, said Smith. He suggested Ontel - which has advanced technology that make their services worthwhile - or even Rank Security, which patrols canal banks for Turlock Irrigation District.

Del Ambris, manager of Cost Less Foods, said his store hires loss prevention officers who make the interior of the store more secure as well as outside security. He gave kudos to Ceres police for being on scene within five minutes after their security officer caught a man trying to steal 34 pallets from the storage area he broke into behind the store.

Ambris said he and other managers also chase away panhandlers who routinely scare or intimidate customers. However, most in attendance felt hiring one security company to uniformly patrol the area between Richland Avenue and Highway 99 and sharing in the cost would be a step in battling crime.

Steve Sanders, a Hatch Road property owner and member of the less-than-active Hatch Road Business Improvement District (BID), gave some historical perspective about why private security was never hired. Many Hatch Road commercial property owners live out of town and weren't interested when the BID obtained bids for private security, saying "nobody wanted to participate and nobody wanted to spend the money." Sanders added security "comes to a big number."

Lee Ann Hoogestraat, an official with the Stanislaus Economic Development & Workforce Alliance and also a Ceres resident, came to the meeting because of her concerns about the future of one of Ceres' chief shopping districts. The Alliance works with businesses to strengthen trade in the area.

"We want to stem the tide of this going down," said Hoogestraat.

Much of the group discussion centered on panhandling and ways to chase it away.

"Panhandlers affect your business because your customers don't want to see it," said Lt. Smith. Sanders agreed, saying, "You want your customers to come back."

"They do this stuff for a business," Lt. Smith enlightened the group. "If you want them here just give them money or food."

Deputy Chief of Police Mike Borges said panhandlers "have a network and they know where the easy pickings are." He said many panhandlers are coming to Ceres and Turlock on the bus since the city of Modesto passed a stronger ordinance restricting panhandling.

When Hoogestraat asked if, when asked for cash, it would be better to direct panhandlers to charitable outreaches, Smith replied it's a "waste of time" since they already know what resources are available to them and they choose not to seek it. They only want cash, he said, mostly to support substances they abuse.

Both Borges and Smith suggested that shoppers stand up and report aggressive panhandlers to police. They also noted that residents should report panhandlers who are within 100 feet of any signalized intersection, within 25 feet of an ATM and those who approach people in cars. Aggressive panhandling is when beggars won't take "no" as an answer for a plea for money or those block paths or approach occupants of a car. Panhandling is also outlawed in Ceres after dark by a 2004 city ordinance.

Borges said most people don't want to get involved to provide statements to an officer but noted the district attorney must have a "victim" willing to testify to prosecute a case.

Chamber of Commerce board chairman Shane Parson suggested businesses need to educate customers on the need to not donate to beggars. He suggested signs being posted to the effect of "Patronize our businesses, not panhandlers."

While there is not usually a link between panhandlers and crime itself, said Borges, he said much of the thieving that takes place in Ceres is done by repeat offenders who are often arrested and turned out of on the streets within hours or days.

"People are not being incarcerated very long," he said. "The same people are doing the same crimes here."

Hoogestraat noted that there is a link between the appearance of a commercial area and crime. She said a clean, well-maintained district attracts a "different kind of people" than one riddled with blight.

Sanders said he is quick to see graffiti painted over when it's found and that he strives to maintain the landscaping in his center. A suggestion was made, however, for merchants to hire one landscaping firm to uniformly keep up vegetation. Parson also volunteered help to remove oleanders known to harbor encampments of homeless people behind the businesses south of Hatch Road. Another owner mentioned that the bushes near Auto Zone need to be trimmed since they are tall enough to allow panhandlers to escape detection.

Police also provided a number of tips to help merchants to help fight crime. Smith suggested that merchants install better quality color surveillance cameras and make them available to police as soon as possible after a crime, such as a burglary. Often police cannot identify facial features from low-quality black and white video footage. Training on-site employees or managers how to show police surveillance video is also important in identifying and capturing suspects.

If victimized, Smith said merchants and employees need to take down a good physical description of any suspect, vehicle descriptions, license plate numbers and direction of travel.

Other suggestions included:

• Locking garbage bins and storage areas;

• Not displaying more expensive items near store entrances, making them available for a quick snatch.

• Locking vehicles and keeping valuables out of view or out of the vehicle itself.

• Providing alarm companies with an emergency phone number of the business owner or manager.

Judy Post, a Hatch Road property owner and member of the Hatch Road BID board, drove from Sacramento to attend the hour-long meeting. She said the Hatch Road BID has been limited in what it can do for a uniform shopping district for a lack of money and participation. The BID once derived income from a short-lived assessment paid by businesses but now is limited to revenue from the lease of space on the Highway 99 business sign. Revenues pay for electricity for signal lights on Hatch Road as well as center median landscaping maintenance.

The group agreed to meet again with proposals from security firms.