An anti-theft program spearheaded by a police department in Collier County, Fla., has earned national recognition for reducing losses at construction sites. The Collier County Sheriff’s Office Construction Site Watch Program, launched in November 2021, was recently named the Outstanding Crime Prevention Program of the Year by the Florida Crime Prevention Association.
This is an area of community engagement Collier County Sheriff’s Office Lt. Brian Sawyer has worked in for some time. Sawyer has worked in the department’s Community Engagement Division for more than two decades. On the job, he and his colleagues have been tasked with creating and maintaining a safe community for everyone.
“Whether it’s identity fraud, home burglary protection, community events, or HOA (homeowners association) meetings, my unit and I are involved with most of those things that occur,” he said.
Speaking of incidents, he said that the year 2008 brought many challenges to law enforcement. The recession brought building to a halt, and many people fell on hard times. However, leading up to this time, Naples — the county seat — was one of the most booming housing markets in the county.
“One of the things that we saw during that was a notable increase in construction site crimes, (such as appliance theft),” he said. “We did what we could with the circumstances at the time.”
Fast forward to this decade and construction activity has returned to the area. According to Sawyer, they have contractors refurbishing old homes or building new ones in the east part of the county. As a result, he said they started seeing the same types of thefts as in the 2008 era.
Construction sites often are targeted by criminals because they’re in remote locations, lack security and lighting, and usually have thousands of dollars of materials and equipment on hand, according to a department press release. Add in the rising cost of materials and supply chain issues, and construction sites are even more attractive to thieves.
With this reality in mind, Sawyer and his team developed an effective, long-lasting and significant strategy to reduce construction site thefts. The Construction Site Watch program employs modern technology to address core issues associated with construction site incidents.
Regarding those crimes, Sawyer said they’re perpetrated by a mix of lone actors and organized crime groups who are capitalizing on the chance to steal and resell large constriction equipment. Either way, Sawyer said his team’s approach has effectively prevented or minimized thefts via technology use.
“Our real-time operations center is kind of the hub of reporting,” he said. “So your contractor, subcontractor or homeowner — whomever it may be — can take a picture of the item. So we know, ‘This is what the skid steer looks like.’ Or we know, ‘This is what the trusses look like.’ Our deputies may not be specifically knowledgeable (about) some of the construction industry items, but they can see it and say, ‘Okay, this item should be here from this time to this time. I’m driving by and it’s here.’”
Sawyer said the holistic element also has been key to the program’s success. The agency did a test phase in one neighborhood with several homes under construction. This allowed it to “work out any kinks” and present the initiative to patrol officers for implementation. In his words, “So that way, it makes it an efficient, effective program, where everybody’s on board and knowledgeable about how it works.”
At the same time, Sawyer said it’s important that his unit does not get complacent or else they’ll see their results diluted. He describes combatting construction theft as a “cat-and-mouse game.” That means criminals might respond to the program by changing their tactics. If that happens, Sawyer said they’re committed to counteracting that mentality.
In the meantime, Sawyer said this approach has translated into measurable outcomes beyond a reduction in thefts. The community’s reputation has been elevated, too, on a national scale.
“U.S. News and World Report has named us the safest community in America recently,” he said. “It’s because of the great cooperation between the community, businesses and law enforcement — nobody wants crime in this area. And if it’s going to come here, you’re going to earn it, because we have a great partnership (between these stakeholders).”