By Lieutenant Doug Shepard, Redmond, Washington, Police Department
he city of Redmond, Washington, situated on the east side of Lake Washington, has a resident population of over 50,000 and an estimated daytime population of over 100,000. The city is located near Seattle and in the midst of the central Puget Sound region, which has an estimated 3.5 million residents. Due to its location, accessibility, and affluence, Redmond has been subject to one of the region’s most troublesome issues: auto theft. But the city has not been alone in this dilemma—King County had the dubious distinction of having 49 percent of all auto thefts in the state of Washington in 2004. The Seattle Times noted the rising auto theft rate as early as February 2002 and documented state legislative efforts to curb the problem. A representative from the King County Prosecutor’s Office stated that it took up to seven auto theft convictions before an offender faced prison time.1
In 2003, in light of an epidemic of auto thefts and car prowls and the rising public frustration voiced through the Redmond Community Policing Advisory Board, the Redmond Police Department (RPD) began looking at auto theft and car prowl statistics, attempting to determine analytically if there was a pattern based on type of car, location, time of day and week, and motive. In late 2004, the department formalized its goal of focusing on car prowl and vehicle theft reduction. The method the agency chose emphasized data collection, prevention and education, evidence and intelligence gathering, and proactive strategies to reduce the number of crimes and/or arrest suspects.
At the same time, the King County Police Chiefs Association (KCPCA) began to focus on the auto theft problem. The association comprises agencies working within the county, with the goal of promoting interagency cooperation. In developing the King County Auto Theft Initiative, the KCPCA teamed with the King County Prosecutor’s Office to study the auto theft problem and brainstorm solutions.
Beginning in early 2005, the RPD followed a policy of processing all recovered stolen vehicles that included towing them to the station from other cities to conduct more in-depth processing or sending officers to recovery sites to process them. Redmond developed prevention and education materials that were distributed at prowl and theft locations and handed out “welcome” packets to new apartment residents outlining prevention methods. The same year, an enforcement team (ProAct) composed of six officers and a supervisor began actively working known auto theft suspects.
Although the region’s agencies were urged to act on the auto theft recommendations, budget and staffing difficulties prevented any full-scale effort. Some agencies had detectives or specialty units devoted to addressing car theft, but their efforts were neither cooperative nor cohesive. In response to the problem, the RPD hired an additional analyst and dedicated space and equipment for a regional auto theft analysis center. The ATTACK Center (Auto Theft Tactical Analysis Center for King County) was originally modeled after the federal fusion center concept, with the intention of integrating several sources of information into one center for analysis and dissemination, with staffing from several agencies. Another prong in this effort was Redmond’s version of the CompStat philosophy, where command staff conduct a monthly review of crime statistics and trends and brainstorm solutions to emerging problems with the supervisors of the affected divisions.
The aim of the project was to stem the tide of increasing vehicle crime rates in Redmond and across the region, whether by the identification and arrest of criminals or by the identification of crime patterns. As one commander stated, “Whatever we’re doing isn’t working, so let’s try something different.”
In early 2005, Redmond launched its Car Prowl and Auto Theft Reduction effort, which at first was undertaken on a patrol level. One officer per squad was designated as the vehicle crimes “expert” and was given training in auto theft investigation and evidence processing. Officers began documenting locations and conditions at vehicle prowl and theft locations as well as locations of recoveries and the conditions of vehicles when recovered. Vehicles were processed at the scene or towed to the station for in-depth processing. Officers also conducted neighborhood canvasses, looking for witnesses and/or evidence of the crimes, and distributed prevention and education materials in the area of car crimes.
Charting these data, the RPD analyst attempted to ascertain trends and high-crime locations and made a map available to all department personnel charting vehicle crime locations.
By the end of September 2005, analysis showed mixed results. Prowl and theft rates fluctuated with no clear pattern of locations in the city or within apartment complexes. Analysis by time of day, day of week, type of vehicle, and condition of vehicle revealed no trends and therefore no target areas for enforcement action. In addition, some reporting methods changed, and it proved nearly impossible to perform periodic comparisons.
There were positive results, however. Patrol officers were taking the extra steps necessary to investigate vehicle crimes effectively; using improved equipment and techniques to process victim vehicles; and, most importantly, letting the public and surrounding agencies know that the department was serious about investigating vehicle crimes and prosecuting those responsible for committing them.
Other pieces began to fit into the puzzle. That year, the King County Prosecutor’s Office began the Car Theft Initiative, which redirected more prosecution staff to focus on auto theft.
In October 2005, Redmond formed a six-officer ProAct team, with the guidance of the Bellevue, Washington, Police Department’s special enforcement team. Collaborating immediately on an investigation, the two teams successfully arrested a prolific car thief.
ATTACK Center Goals
In 2006, the RPD’s auto theft goals were growing more sophisticated and were therefore revised to include the following four parts:
- Collect and analyze data from car crimes to determine effective deployment of resources
- Develop and implement an education/prevention component
- Conduct in-depth criminal investigation of victim vehicles, including suspect interviews
- Develop a tactical proactive strategy to curb occurrences and/or arrest suspects
Coupled with these goals was the use of the ATTACK center and auto theft and intelligence detectives to increase the solvability of car crimes.
The ATTACK center began electronically researching, requesting, and distributing criminal information to other agencies, using databases such as RAIN (Regional Automated Information Network); Coplink, a computer software suite that facilitates information sharing among agencies and law enforcement databases; and LInX (Law Enforcement Information Exchange). Redmond analysts also hosted work group meetings, concentrating on identifying regional trends and criminals, and interest began to grow in the region. Auto theft detectives and analysts began using the ATTACK center as a “one-stop shop,” where they could relay suspect information about a crime they were working and receive responses regarding similar crimes and criminals without having to painstakingly call or e-mail each agency representative for the same information.
Auto theft special enforcement teams also began using the center for their investigations. In addition to the Redmond ProAct team, Bellevue’s special enforcement team almost immediately began accessing information available through ATTACK, and other area teams followed suit. The Kirkland Police Department and the King County Sheriff’s Office formed enforcement teams in 2007.
The King County Prosecutor’s Office also uses the ATTACK center as a resource. Prosecutors are able to reach out for information on pending filings, asking agencies across three counties for additional cases that could be added to the existing charges of arrested suspects. The additional cases often mean more time added to sentences upon conviction.
The ATTACK center also serves to coordinate cases on one suspect from different agencies, so one filing with multiple charges can be presented to a prosecutor. This enables one prosecutor to handle a suspect’s entire court case, rather than requiring many prosecutors to file charges on the same suspect in several jurisdictions and courts.
Impact of the Center
The impact of the ATTACK center and the Car Theft Initiative has been nothing short of remarkable. Car theft in King County has been in a steep decline since the beginning of 2007, which continued through 2008 and into 2009. The effect of the initiative was felt even earlier, with the number of thefts actually declining in 9 of the 12 months of 2006. In March 2008, the number of auto thefts in King County was 616, down from 1,448 in March 2005, a 47 percent decrease. Redmond experienced a 22 percent decline in auto thefts from 2006 to 2007 and a 50 percent decrease from 2007 to 2008.
|Success in Bellevue|
Continuing a trend, car thefts in Bellevue, Washington, dropped by 38 percent in 2008. With an aggressive plainclothes team targeting auto thieves, Bellevue police reduced the number of car theft cases from 446 in 2007 to 274 last year. Car thefts in Bellevue decreased for a fifth straight year, from a high of 607 in 2004. The special enforcement team (SET), which includes plainclothes detectives and officers assigned to focus on whatever the city’s biggest crime problem is at the time, was formed in 2003. With rates of other crimes relatively low in Bellevue, auto theft is a frequent target for the SET.
Source: www.ci.bellevue.wa.us (accessed February 7, 2009)
While auto theft across the state has been in a general decline, King County has experienced a virtual freefall. Auto theft in the county has declined by 28 percent since 2003 and over 36 percent since 2005. In comparison, auto thefts continued to increase in the state’s other most populous counties in the 2003 to 2007 time frame. Nearly all of these counties had more auto thefts in 2007 than in 2003, whereas King County had over 4,000 fewer thefts.
The ATTACK center now has on its distribution list over 280 individuals representing over 60 agencies across four counties. All of the special enforcement teams communicate with the center, both seeking and transmitting information. Crime analysts from outside agencies communicate regularly, and as of this writing, two outside analysts periodically visit the ATTACK center to work. At the February 2008 ATTACK meeting, over 40 participants, including members of the King County Prosecutor’s Auto Theft Unit, attended. This meeting generated an updated “Top 20” list, a list produced by ATTACK since 2006 that serves to target and prosecute the most prolific vehicle crime offenders in the region.
The ATTACK information-sharing model also works in real time. On more than one occasion, someone on the ATTACK network has circulated a picture or a crime description, requesting information to identify the offender. One husband-and-wife team was caught on video prowling a car at the University of Washington, and their pictures were circulated on ATTACK. The Redmond ProAct team identified one suspect and followed and arrested both suspects, who were driving a stolen Hummer, the next day. They were both sentenced to 57 months in prison for numerous crimes. This is just one of many examples of suspects being identified and arrested through ATTACK information sharing.
There has been unprecedented cooperation and collaboration among ATTACK partners. Redmond, Bellevue, and Kirkland enforcement teams have worked together on numerous investigations and have shared information about suspects who might be victimizing their neighboring cities. ATTACK has also provided tactical crime analysis to agencies that do not have their own analysts.
Through the ATTACK program, criminal activity has been affected. The profile of a typical auto thief in the Puget Sound region is most frequently a methamphetamine addict who uses a stolen car as transportation to commit other crimes. By targeting auto thieves, agencies are also clearing burglaries, credit card fraud, forgeries, identity theft, and stolen property cases, including the recovery of several stolen guns. ATTACK analysts are able to link these multiple crimes in multiple jurisdictions through the networking process they have established. Agencies are then able to tap into the database established through the collaboration and work cooperatively to apprehend and prosecute offenders.
Future of Auto Theft Enforcement in Washington
The goals established by the RPD are not transitory; rather, they constitute a business model for responding to vehicle crimes. The department has found that criminals who perpetrate these crimes commit a host of others as well and have cost victims hundreds of thousands of dollars. Redmond is committed to maintaining and expanding the ATTACK center by using additional analysts and expanding data search capabilities.
Other agencies in the region are beginning or expanding their special enforcement units, with auto theft as one of their primary targets. The King County Sheriff’s Office is piloting a project to process all recovered stolen cars in one of its precincts. The Washington State Patrol has just requested assistance from the RPD in setting up an ATTACK operation in Pierce County. The Washington State Legislature created the Auto Theft Prevention Authority and passed several laws specifically targeting auto thieves by enhancing sentencing guidelines. It also created a funding source through a penalty assessment on speeding citations, and the Washington Auto Theft Prevention Authority established a grant that will provide over $6.3 million to public agencies in the 2008–2009 fiscal year for auto theft prevention and enforcement.2
The RPD believes that the sustainable template of cooperation, coordination, and collaboration established with neighboring agencies in its region has demonstrated its effectiveness in combating auto theft in a large geographic area that spans multiple law enforcement jurisdictions. But the successes of this initiative are sustainable over the long term only if all the different entities involved are resolved to provide both personnel and funding. ■
1Autumn Koepp, “Car Thefts Getting Legislature’s Attention,” Seattle Times, February 15, 2002, http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/cgi-bin/PrintStory.pl?document_id=134405188&zsection_id=268436060&slug=cartheft15m&date=20020215 (accessed February 4, 2009).
2For more information about the Washington Auto Theft Prevention Authority auto theft grant program, readers can visit http://watpa.waspc.org/grant.html.