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Hiking in Austin? What to know about car break-ins before you go.

A sign reads "Theft Warning Hikers: Leave any valuables in your vehicle? Don't risk it! They may not be there when you get back..." at the Twin Falls Greenbelt entrance and parking lot on Nov. 15, 2023. KUT/Ivy Fowler
Ivy Fowler
Signs are posted at the Twin Falls Greenbelt entrance and parking lot that warn hikers to not leave valuables in their cars.

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Mount Bonnell, Pennybacker Bridge, and nearby greenbelts have grown in popularity for hikers, tourists, and, more recently, car burglars.

“I never thought I would be the next victim while enjoying that beautiful area,” said Tina Vargas, whose car was broken into in October while she was hiking with her friend near Pennybacker Bridge.

Vargas, who is from Donna, was driving with a friend to Waco to visit her daughter and stopped at a trail near the bridge at around 2 p.m. She said she was driving a rental car and had their suitcases, backpacks and purses hidden in a blanket under the car seat. The burglars only stole her friend's purse, leaving everything else behind.

The recent increases in car break-ins have led several city departments to step in and try to address the rise in burglaries. In June, the Austin Police Department launched a pilot program to see if displaying electronic warning signs about car burglaries would effectively reduce the number of reported break-ins. And in May, the Parks and Recreation Department also installed cameras at Mount Bonnell and nine other parks to see if that decreased car break-ins.

“We decided that it was time to try something new because we continued to have break-ins not only at Mount Bonnell but several sites on parkland,” said Amanda Ross, division manager with the Parks and Recreation Department for the City of Austin.

The initial plan for the camera pilot program aimed to see if the number of break-ins would go down over six months. The pilot program wrapped up this month, Ross said, and the Parks Department plans to evaluate the results with APD. So far, she said she could see a change at certain locations.

“Mount Bonnell, Mayfield Park, St. Edwards Park and Barton Creek Greenbelt, or what we call [the] Twin Falls entrance, all show differences, which is helpful,” Ross said. “There’s other larger [parking lots] that weren’t helpful, particularly at night, so we learned that maybe we need to make some adjustments in the types of cameras.”

A large machine with cameras on top is seen at the Twin Falls Greenbelt entrance and parking lot on Nov. 15, 2023. KUT/Ivy Fowler
Ivy Fowler
The Parks and Recreation Department placed cameras near popular hiking places as part of its pilot program to see if crime in the areas decreased.

The Parks Department is now trying to determine how it can move forward with purchasing more cameras within the city’s budget to sustain the program long term.

“[The Parks and Recreation Department] did get some money this year that we’re looking at putting towards cameras in the fiscal year,” Ross said. “So we do expect [the cameras] to go away kind of in the slower season for us, with the idea that we will have them back up and running at several locations again before the spring busy season hits.”

Vargas was renting an SUV for her trip and parked the car on the street side near the bridge. She said the most shocking part of the situation was the burglary happened in broad daylight.

“When we asked the people around there, everybody would say ‘no, no, no, I didn’t see anything,’” Vargas said. “[The rental company] just did an exchange, and they were also freaked out when we told them that this happened at Pennybacker.”

Vargas said she was also frustrated because the police said they could not send anyone to the scene since it was not an emergency. After driving to a police station, Vargas said she was directed to file a report online. She said she hasn't heard back yet.

APD Lt. Patrick Eastlick said the department tries to have officers patrol near the parks, but it doesn’t happen as frequently as they would like.

“It’s one of our hotspot areas where [officers] if they’re able to, they go out there and do a more directed patrol on those parking lots,” Eastlick said. “Our primary priority is answering 911 calls and emergency calls, so as time allows, you know, officers try to get over there.”

Covering your belongings with a blanket or towel as Vargas did is no longer a good deterrent to would-be thieves, Eastlick said.

“The criminals that are targeting these vehicles are aware of ways that people conceal their property,” Eastlick said.

For now, the police department’s advice is to take property and anything of value out of the car and take it on the hike, Eastlick said.

“Don’t leave wallets, don’t leave purses, backpacks, any type of bag, and remove all items from view in your vehicle,” he said. “Make sure you lock your vehicle, and that will greatly reduce the potential of you becoming a victim of the crime.”