America’s car theft epidemic blamed on police officer shortages, soft-on-crime prosecutors

Dan Smith

In 2022, the number of stolen cars in the United States is expected to surpass 1 million for the first time in history, shattering previous records and law enforcement struggling to keep up. In the first nine months of 2022, more than 745,000 vehicles were stolen nationwide, according to National Insurance and Crime Bureau data. According to the NICB, this is the highest number of cars stolen in the first nine months since 2008, a 24% increase from pre-pandemic levels. They estimate that stolen cars will be worth over $6.6 billion this year. Police say the number of stolen cars is much higher than reported. Tom Weitzel, recently retired Chicago suburban police chief in Riverside, Illinois, said it would be difficult to prove a car theft charge without eyewitness testimony or video evidence from the suspect who stole the car. As such, prosecutors should pursue misdemeanors such as trespassing. "Courts and prosecutors certainly don't take car theft seriously. Unless it's an extra-fee carjacking, it's not considered a violent crime and the insurance company pays the victim," he said. . "This really skews the numbers from both prosecutors and police who are downplaying crime because they know it doesn't last long." But even if police and courts falsify numbers, as Weitzel claims, the numbers in major cities across the country are shocking. Car thefts in Denver are up 15% compared to the same period last year, a staggering 178% increase compared to 2019, and a staggering 80% increase compared to 2020. New York City experienced a 32% surge in car thefts, with 12,901 cars stolen through December 11, compared with 9,757 during the same period last year. According to police in Memphis, Tennessee, 9,600 auto thefts were reported in the first 11 months of 2022, an average of about 30 per day. This is also a 100% increase compared to the same period last year. Things are so bad in Memphis that police are handing out hundreds of freewheel locks to curb this trend. Car thefts in Chicago increased nearly 100% in the first 50 weeks of the year, with 19,784 cars stolen compared to 9,933 in the same period last year. Weitzel, now a police adviser, said Chicago's surge in auto thefts has spread to the suburbs. He said hundreds of cars are stolen every night in Cook County, Illinois, where Chicago is located. "It's never been like that before. It's such an epidemic," he said. Since the 1990s, vehicle thefts have been trending downward in the 2010s. However, NICB data shows that car theft rates have increased every month since June 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Even more frustrating for police is the increasing violence of car thieves. Earlier this month, a Denver auto theft suspect shot a police officer in the neck during an arrest. Police say, unlike previous car thefts where parts were stripped from the stolen vehicle, most thieves used the car to commit another crime and leave it unharmed. Betsy Brandtner-Smith, a spokeswoman for the National Police Association, said the new technology can be defeated. He said it was to pursue penalties for thieves. “If someone was prosecuting like they used to spend five to ten years in prison, people would stop doing it. People get punished because they don't.How does that stop you from doing what you're doing?" Police also said a big part of the problem is that police are trying to make do with fewer resources and fewer officers. Many police departments have pulled officers out of their auto theft departments and redeployed them to investigate more violent crimes. The Washington State Patrol said earlier this month it would lure four officers from its multi-agency task force covering car theft because there aren't enough detectives to handle other cases. Since 2017, his four detectives have recovered 921 of his stolen vehicles worth more than $13 million and contributed to 241 arrests. “Our resources are limited and we have significant responsibilities, so we need to make ongoing adjustments to how we deploy our resources to meet those responsibilities. I think everyone would agree that the response to crime has to take its place," said Chris Loftus, spokesman for the Washington State Patrol. By November, an average of 80 vehicles were stolen per day in King and Pierce counties, two jurisdictions patrolled by the task force. Police in Aurora, Colorado, have pulled officers from a statewide task force investigating car thefts, citing a shortage of staff.The state's car theft rate is the highest in the nation, according to NICB statistics. According to data from the Colorado Metropolitan Auto Theft Task Force, auto thefts in the state have increased 113% over the past two years. Another factor driving the surge in auto theft is the high value of used cars, which is outpacing inflation. Supply chain swells, computer chip shortages, and pandemic-related hoarding have resulted in a shortage of new cars and an increase in the value of used cars. As a result, more intact vehicles are being sold on the black market, police said. This is especially true for full-size pickups and other vehicles. Of particular interest to thieves are automotive catalytic converters, which can fetch as much as $250 for precious metals such as platinum, palladium and rhodium. Catalytic converter theft has become such a problem in Philadelphia that the city council passed a bill this month to curb the surge. The bill bans the sale of partial catalytic converters and imposes a 90-day prison sentence for anyone convicted of stealing them. Police also say that too many people leave their vehicles unprotected, creating an attractive opportunity for thieves. Some drivers keep the car running with it. Other drivers have left their keys in their visors or cup holders. Car thieves are also getting more sophisticated, using technology to reprogram keyless cars so they can be opened without damaging them. Weitzel said keyless technology has made thieves much harder to catch. "Police on patrol are trained to identify stolen vehicles by looking for a lot of damage, such as shards of glass, but if there is no damage, the police won't notice it," he said. . Automakers have responded with biometric readers that require a fingerprint or iris scan of the car owner to start the vehicle. However, this technology is not yet standard.