Manhunt for Cell Phone Thief Puts Palo Alto PD in Hot Seat

Police say it's about the thief, not the theft

By Kris Sanchez
|  Wednesday, Oct 6, 2010  |  Updated 8:57 AM PDT
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Palo Alto Police are not apologizing for what some might consider, an overreactive response to the theft of a smartphone. The criticism stems from an incident that happened about 6 p.m. Tuesday evening.

Palo Alto police say a man asked to borrow a pedestrian's phone on East Meadow Drive near Mitchell Park, but then took off with the phone. The victim called police and a patrol officer spotted the suspected thief shortly after. When that officer tried to make contact with the thief, he fled on foot. The officer pursued for a few blocks then called for backup.

Ultimately, Palo Alto police -- with assistance from officers from two neighboring agencies -- set up a perimeter and did a yard-to-yard search for the thief, who was hopping fences in an effort to get away. A Santa Clara County Sheriff's helicopter already on patrol also flew over the scene.

Though the response might seem disproportionate to the crime, hindsight is 20-20.

Palo Alto police agent Max Nielepko tells NBC Bay Area, "In this situation we don't know why the suspect ran. We don't know if he ran because he stole a phone or if he's running because he's a wanted parolee." Nielepko added, "What elevated the response in this situation is that he was fleeing through a residential neighborhood and that was a threat to public safety."

Nielepko says his agency spent no extra money on the search, since the responding officers were already on the clock. Same is true for the other departments and the sheriff's helicopter. They were already on patrol.

We may never know why the thief ran, since he ultimately got away. He's described as a slim black man between age 16-25 with a thin mustache. He was wearing a black or red shirt, dark pants and green earrings, Nielepko said. Anyone with information regarding the case is asked to call Palo Alto police at 650-329-2413.

Palo Alto police say the thief also stole a bike from a pickup truck near a Palo Alto neighborhood before he swiped the smartphone.

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