DOWNTOWN — Crime has been on the rise in Santa Monica during the first seven months of 2009, the 19 percent increase fueled by property crimes, with auto and bike thefts and shoplifting being the main contributing factors, according to figures released by the Santa Monica Police Department.

From January to July 2009, there have been 191 auto thefts, a 45 percent increase when compared to the 132 reported cases in 2008 during that same time frame. Thefts from autos are up 57 percent, with 578 reported so far this year compared to 367 in the first seven months of 2008.

Bike thefts have risen dramatically, with police reporting a 96 percent increase with 282 cases reported this year compared to 144 in 2008. Shoplifting is up 23 percent with 251 reported thefts.

Police believe that the majority of the crimes, particularly the auto and bike thefts, are being committed by organized groups from outside of the city who may view Santa Monica as an easy target with plenty of resources for the taking.

Law enforcement officials have focused their resources on the hot spots, including Downtown, which has experienced the overwhelming majority of property crimes, with 211 reported cases so far this year, a 41 percent spike.

But Deputy Chief Phil Sanchez said officers cannot do it alone. They need the public’s help in identifying suspects and reporting anything suspicious. Budget constraints have forced the police department to be more selective in how it uses overtime deployments, putting an even greater emphasis on community policing.

“Everybody wants more cops on the street, but educating the public is formidable in and of itself,” said Sanchez, a 29-year veteran of the SMPD who has an extensive background in police tactics and special operations. “Public safety starts with individual awareness. The more we can get our community members on board with reporting suspicious activity, securing their own homes, cars and not being apathetic about their valuables or about personal safety, the better we can tackle this problem.”

The good news, Sanchez said, is that violent crime, which includes homicides, rapes, assaults and robberies, are down considerably when compared to 2008, figures show.

That is why police are putting such an emphasis on community participation and preparedness. By being more alert, law enforcement officials are confident residents can help reverse the spike in property crimes.

Residents and business owners are reminded to be aware of their surroundings and not become easy targets. Do not leave valuables in plain sight and purchase more secure bike locks, police recommend. Thieves can easily take bolt cutters out of a backpack, clip a thin bike lock and ride off.

“Bicycles are easy to sell; the same goes for electronics,” said SMPD Sgt. Jay Trisler. “Most of the time thieves are looking for something that is easy to grab so that they can get some quick cash.”

Recently officers arrested two adults and two juveniles who were seen by a passerby clipping a bike lock in a Downtown alley. The witness shouted at the suspects, who took off running. The suspects entered a parking structure near a bank on Fifth Street and were swiftly apprehended and booked for petty theft and conspiracy.

Trisler said that incident serves as an example of what can happen when community members get involved. Without the passerby shouting at the suspects, they could have made off with another bicycle.

It is difficult to identify the cause or causes for the increase in property crimes. Some point to the struggling economy and the high unemployment rate, which reached 11.9 percent last week. Others point to the extreme change in population during the weekends, when thousands flock to the beach and popular shopping districts. These visitors may not be familiar with the city and could therefore make themselves vulnerable.

“My sense is that Santa Monica has a tremendous amount of resources,” Sanchez said. “We have a lot of people that come to live, visit and work in Santa Monica so we have a high turnover … . And if people are not paying attention to their surroundings, they make themselves easy targets.”

To fight back, law enforcement is offering some tips. To prevent auto burglaries, it is important to never leave valuables in plain sight. Take cell phones, mp3 players and GPS devices inside when parking a car, or place them in the trunk. Do not leave vehicle registration information in the car or truck. It should be kept with a driver’s license. Always lock car doors and roll up windows, even if you are just stopping for a moment. An open door or window provides a quick and quiet way for a thief to steal. If your vehicle has an alarm, use it.

When parking, look for well lit areas. Always be aware of your surroundings and report suspicious activity.

For bikes, police recommend purchasing a hardened-steel lock like a U-lock. Secure the frame of the bike to a strong, stationary object, like a bike rack. Never leave a bike unlocked, even if it is in a carport or underground garage. Park bikes in areas where there are plenty of pedestrians.

Trisler reminds bike owners that they are required by law to register their bikes with the SMPD. The state requires a license for any bicycle used on any street. The cost is $3 and the license must be renewed every three years. Officers use the licenses to help identify the owners of bicycles that are recovered.

kevinh@smdp.com