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Back to Archives | Back to November 2008 Contents 

History Repeats Itself: Task Forces Fighting Vehicle Theft in the Western United States

By Commissioner Joseph A. Farrow; Sergeant Troy Rivers; and Lori Newquist, Staff Service Analyst, California Highway Patrol, Sacramento, California



yatt and Virgil Earp made frontier history in the well-documented Gunfight at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona, in 1881. The gang they fought that day, known as the Cowboys, is believed to have regrouped only two months later, attacking Virgil with double-barrel shotguns. Wyatt, thinking his brother was dying, telegraphed Crawley P. Drake, U.S. marshal for the Arizona Territory, seeking authority to appoint his own deputies as a federally authorized posse to track down the renegade band.

When Crawley approved, Wyatt Earp became head of the North American continent’s first vehicle theft task force. This is not hyperbole; the Cowboys gang made its living by stealing horses, which were the primary “vehicle” of the day. Henry Ford’s first Model A automobile did not roll off the assembly line for another 27 years. Earp’s group (known as the Vendetta Posse) necessarily focused on arresting thieves and recovering stolen horses; thus, in structure and function, it served as a task force.

The feud between the Earps and the Cowboys began several years earlier with the theft of six horses from an Arizona ranch. Over the ensuing years, the Earps sharpened their skills at tracking and capturing thieves, and in 1881 the Vendetta Posse’s abilities paid off. The posse hunted down the vehicle thieves and administered its own brand of justice, serving as judge, jury, and executioner.

Jumping ahead 127 years, the law enforcement profession still confronts the same problem: theft of vehicles, now of the wheeled kind, an activity that has grown into an annual multibillion-dollar loss. Today, law enforcement agencies no longer administer justice in the frontier fashion, but the collaborative model to address the problem still prevails. Local and regional vehicle theft task forces that aggressively pursue thieves, using superior technology and communications techniques, now define the state of the antitheft effort.

This article describes the difficulties encountered by the modern-day law enforcement community in combating vehicle theft and highlights the efforts of task forces in two regions plagued by high auto theft rates: Modesto, California, and Las Vegas, Nevada.


Extent of the Problem

The importance of attacking vehicle theft is made starkly clear by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Uniform Crime Report, which noted that motor vehicle theft accounts for the highest dollar loss among property crimes. That total reached approximately $7.6 billion in 2004 (latest figures available).1 It should be noted that the United States as a whole has seen an overall decrease in vehicle theft for several years. However, the loss figures remain in the billions, creating a significant impact on the economy, the insurance industry, and most importantly the citizenry. The western part of the country appears to suffer the greatest loss: in 2005, the West was reluctantly home to all of the “top” 10 metropolitan statistical areas in the United States in terms of auto theft.2

Even though thefts dipped in 2006—on average a 2.1 percent drop, according to FBI figures cited by the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB)—inflation rates offset the decline. The 2.4 percent increase in inflation meant that dollar losses attributable to theft actually increased.3

Today’s huge theft toll could be compared to a snowball rolling downhill, gathering size and momentum as it moves. Vehicle theft was viewed by the criminal mind as a lucrative opportunity the moment Ford moved his first vehicle out the door. By 1919 thefts had become so numerous that the federal government intervened with passage of the Dyer Act, also known as the National Motor Vehicle Theft Act, designed to help states supplement their efforts to stem theft by making transportation of a stolen vehicle across state lines a federal offense. No further federal antitheft legislation was enacted until the mid-1960s; since then, both federal and state governments have adopted numerous statutes. Some of these new laws created antitheft tools; others provided additional resources that expanded the effectiveness of the law enforcement community in identifying stolen vehicles, recovering those vehicles, and arresting the subjects responsible for the thefts.


Barriers to Progress

Today, law enforcement agencies face two disturbing hurdles that tend to relegate vehicle theft to a secondary position on the enforcement agenda. The first is the widespread public belief that because vehicle theft usually is considered a property crime, it therefore is often considered “victimless.” The hassle experienced by those who suffer a theft suggests that this perception is wrong.

The second hurdle appears to be an outgrowth of the first. The lack of wide publicity about vehicle theft creates an image of both nonchalance and a lack of focus on battling theft and its perpetrators on the part of the law enforcement community. Reconstructing this image demands a bold law enforcement antitheft presence, accompanied by demonstrated commitment to a cause, assurances to the public that law enforcement agencies truly care about reducing thefts, and the aggressive pursuit of that end.

The law enforcement community perhaps should accord stronger acknowledgment of the societal reality that cars are so much a part of the average U.S. resident’s life that the loss of a vehicle to a thief represents an invasion of personal privacy equivalent to a home burglary. The sense of being personally violated is palpable. Some would even say that their vehicles are private sanctuaries useful in escaping the everyday stresses of life. For others, the automobile has become the living room of decades past, where families would gather to talk. Because of today’s fast-paced lives, the only time for family gatherings may be in the family car.

Law enforcement therefore finds itself facing the unusual challenge of convincing the public of its intrinsic interest in combating vehicle theft. To do this means that antitheft strategies and technology must be cutting edge, always advancing. Tools of the most recent vintage—bait cars and automatic license plate recognition (ALPR) systems—have been notably successful, but technological improvements must augment, not supplant, the most valuable weapon: a unified striking capacity that includes not only vehicle theft task forces but also prosecutors who understand the role that stringent punishment, handed down uniformly, plays in the overall attack on vehicle theft.

Officers also must understand that auto theft, drugs, and gang activity are tightly intertwined, compounding the difficulty in the conduct of investigations and emphasizing the importance of persistent, intelligent enforcement.


The Modesto Response

Just three years ago, escalating thefts had held the ominous promise of ranking Modesto and its surrounding Stanislaus County area high on the list published periodically by the NICB of the worst areas in the country for auto theft. “How bad will it be?” was a common question among local officers. Pretty bad, as it turned out: the Modesto and Stanislaus County area was ranked number one in vehicle thefts nationally—an unwelcome and certainly unsavory title—in the NICB’s Spring 2006 “Hot Spots” news release.4

In response, local law enforcement agencies called on the Stanislaus County Auto Theft Task Force (STANCATT) to come up with new and innovative ways to combat the problem. Administered by an executive committee chaired by Ceres chief of police Art de Werk, STANCATT comprises representatives from the California Highway Patrol; the Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Office; and police agencies in Ceres, Turlock, and Modesto. The county district attorney’s office has assigned a deputy to work closely with the task force and prosecute auto theft cases.

NICB Vehicle Theft Study Hot Spots
Image courtesy of the NICB.
Birgit Fladager, county district attorney since 2006 and a prosecutor for 16 years before that, said that before STANCATT, she had taken the close relationship between law enforcement personnel and the district attorney for granted; she “didn’t realize that such a strong positive working relationship existed” in her county until she began comparing it with other counties.

Chief de Werk seconded the importance of collaboration. “I’ve never seen a group of agencies that work so well together.” Both noted that police agencies working alone would be overwhelmed. De Werk said, “In Stanislaus County the crooks outnumber law enforcement. Working independently would be counterproductive. Working together gives us strength, coordination, and added resources. Smaller police agencies that can’t lend personnel for the task force do cooperate when we put out a call for their special short-term assistance.”

The Modesto strategy leaned heavily on an extensive publicity campaign as well as the use of bait cars. The advent of bait cars is fairly recent; they became generally available in the mid-1990s. Before bait cars became prevalent, agencies typically had to wait until a theft occurred, then piece together enough evidence to identify the thieves, track them down, and hope to recover one or more stolen vehicles as well. Bait cars give agencies hard evidence on the spot and in many cases make the arrest quite simple. Some bait cars, for example, lock down as soon as the thief starts to drive away. Officers arriving on the scene take suspects into custody without incident.

When the 2006 crime statistics were compiled, thefts in the Modesto/Stanislaus County area had dropped almost 40 percent, bringing the city down to number five in the national rankings. That decline was more than an economic boon and a law enforcement triumph; it demonstrated to the citizens of Modesto that the enforcement community—police, sheriffs, the California Highway Patrol, the district attorney, and the private sector (represented by the NICB)—could lock arms and not break ranks.

Fladager believes bait cars were the most important element. She wants the community “to believe that every car could be a bait car,” which will make thieves think twice. Chief de Werk and Lieutenant Jeff Morris, who supervises STANCATT, attribute much of their success to the elevated bail amounts, which increased from $10,000 to $40,000 after Fladager sought the higher figure.

IACP Vehicle Theft Award of Merit

Through the IACP Vehicle Theft Award
of Merit program, the IACP Vehicle Theft
Committee allows law enforcement agencies,
task forces, councils, community partnerships,
and other theft prevention alliances to
showcase the vehicle theft educational or
enforcement activities in which they participated
during the calendar year.

This year, the committee has selected
both the Stanislaus County, California,
Auto Theft Task Force (STANCATT) and the
Vehicle Investigations Project for Enforcement
and Recovery (VIPER), Las Vegas,
Nevada, as multiagency task force winners.
These task forces were presented with
their awards at the Highway Safety Awards
Breakfast, during the 115th Annual IACP
Conference in San Diego.

Since 2007, there has also been an award
category for the individual law enforcement officer
who made an outstanding contribution to
vehicle theft prevention and/or enforcement.

For the 2009 Vehicle Theft Award of
Merit, which acknowledges contributions
for the 2008 calendar year, the deadline for
submission is May 11, 2009. Applications
may be downloaded at
http://www.theiacp.org/awards/VehTheft09Application.pdf.
For additional information, readers can contact
Dick Ashton at 1-800-THE-IACP, extension
276, or via e-mail at ashtonr@theiacp.org.


The Las Vegas Response

The Las Vegas experience could be seen as echoing that of Modesto/Stanislaus County. In 2005, the Nevada city ranked just below Modesto as the second most theft-prone community nationally. But the situation got worse: when Modesto dropped to number five through the efforts previously described, Las Vegas edged up to number one, putting the desert city in an unwanted spotlight.

The Las Vegas response was quick and certain. Local agencies looked to Orange County, California, where the highly effective Orange County Auto Theft Task Force (OCATT) had been operating for years. Heading up that group, Lieutenant Rick Pena brought his entire team into a conference with Lieutenant Robert Duvall, commander of the Las Vegas task force known as the Vehicle Investigations Project for Enforcement and Recovery (VIPER). VIPER, which includes representatives from the Las Vegas Metro Police Department, the North Las Vegas and Henderson police departments, and the Nevada Highway Patrol, operates much like STANCATT.

Duvall’s recollection of that meeting was that teamwork trumped all. “I immediately saw the importance of working together,” he said. His next move was to bring his whole team to Orange County for a weeklong instructional session. Back home, Lieutenant Duvall reorganized his troops and went after thieves—and VIPER began to do well. Thefts began to decline in late 2006, even as the city moved into the number one slot nationally. By mid-2007, VIPER’s efforts had the city on track for an overall 23 percent drop in thefts by the end of the year, presaging a move down the ranking list to third. This drop took place against a huge growth in population—an average of 6,000 per month.


An Ongoing Challenge

Vehicle theft task forces operate in other jurisdictions. All of them can list successes, but none perhaps more dramatic than the STANCATT experience and the parallel effectiveness of VIPER in Nevada. The challenge now for both groups is to hold theft rates at the lower levels they have recently attained—and then reduce them even further.■

Notes:


1Federal Bureau of Investigation, “Motor Vehicle Theft,” Crime in the United States 2004, http://www.fbi.gov/ucr/cius_04/offenses_reported/property_crime/motor_vehicle_theft.html (accessed October 6, 2008).
2Metropolitan statistical areas are designated by the U.S. Office of Management and Budget.
3U.S. Department of Labor Web site, August 19, 2007.
4“For Car Thieves, the West Is Best,” NICB press release, May 9, 2006, https://www.nicb.org/cps/rde/xchg/SID-4031FE9A-734BE603/nicb/hs.xsl/214.htm (accessed September 30, 2008).

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From The Police Chief, vol. LXXV, no. 11, November 2008. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.








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