The large cardboard box was dressed up like a regular delivery from Amazon, complete with official blue holiday tape and a sticker on the side noting that the contents included a lithium battery commonplace in high-end electronics.
But inside sat a broken laptop and a small GPS tracker St. Paul police were using Tuesday in an attempt to catch package thieves, a first for the department as far as anyone there could recall.
"It's a difficult thing," Sgt. Dave Strecker said of catching package thieves. "You've got to be in the right spot at the right time."
While exact numbers from past years are difficult to come by because of a previously vague labeling system for such crimes, police believe there's been a "substantial" increase in package thefts this year. Police have received 200 reports this year for mail or package thefts. Of those, said police spokesman Steve Linders, 58 cases were reported after Nov. 1.
"We tend to see an uptick around the holidays," Linders said.
Police plan to conduct undercover stings through the holiday season using GPS technology following Tuesday's test run of Operation Drop Box on the city's West Side.
The crime is typically a "crime of opportunity," police say, and thieves often hit homes in midafternoon, selling the wares from their exploits online or trading them for drugs.
"They're making the rounds looking for packages," said Sgt. Jason Urbanski, who led Tuesday's operation.
Urbanski, an investigator in the Central District, said that since late October his district has received about three reports a day of mail or package thefts. The district encompasses downtown St. Paul, the West Side and parts of the city between Dale Street and I-35E.
Briefed on how Tuesday's operation was carried out, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Minnesota said it had no position on the police's use of GPS to catch package thieves because it was too early to evaluate the stings.
Urbanski said police aren't entrapping anyone.
"We're not making them commit a crime," Urbanski said. "We left a package on somebody's stoop. They came and stole it."
Tuesday's operation began with a debriefing at police headquarters, also home to the Central District, between Urbanski, Strecker and officers Shawn Filiowich and Dave Quast.
Urbanski prepared the package for delivery and then the group moved out in three separate cars as a commercial delivery truck dropped the package off at a preselected volunteer home sometime after noon.
Strecker parked nearby in an unmarked car and maintained a visual line of sight with the package sitting on a stoop. Urbanski parked further out in an unmarked car armed with an iPad that tracked the package's location. The two officers parked nearby in a marked squad prepared to execute an arrest if necessary.
Officers called it off about 2:05 p.m. after a neighbor's ongoing activities outside the house were deemed too distracting to potential thieves.
The two-hour-long operation yielded no arrests, although Strecker noted that two cars slowed down as they passed by.
"I thought it went well," Strecker said. "It's not always catch 'em, you know?"
The technology is similar to what authorities have long used to bait cars and bicycles or to follow suspects. But Urbanksi said that unlike those investigations where the vehicle is left alone unwatched and typically only tracked when the GPS is activated, package theft stings will be actively watched by officers in real time like Tuesday's operation. The smaller size of GPS tracking devices have also facilitated the new investigatory technique, he said.
Authorities fear package thefts will only increase as the popularity of online shopping grows. A Pew Research Center survey from 2016 found that about 80 percent of Americans shopped online compared to about 22 percent in 2000.
About 26 million Americans surveyed in a 2017 study by insuranceQuotes said a package was taken from their home during the holiday season, up from about 23.5 million in 2015.
While police departments across the state have tried to combat some online shopping-related crime by opening up their parking lots for transactions between strangers, St. Paul police said proactive policing, public awareness, taking personal safety precautions and neighbors looking out for each other may be the best solutions to fighting package theft.
"Police departments are doing a lot to raise awareness about the issue," Linders said. "The more we can work together to raise awareness and watching out for one another is probably the best course of action."
Chao Xiong • 612-270-4708 Twitter: @ChaoStrib