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Back to Archives | Back to November 2005 Contents 

Vehicle Theft Investigation Is about—Looking beyond the Traffic Stop

By Paul D. McClellan, Colonel and Superintendent, Ohio State Highway Patrol, Columbus, Ohio, and Chair, IACP Vehicle Theft Committee

ehicle theft in the United States is a serious problem. According to the latest national auto theft data compiled by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 2003:

  • One vehicle is stolen every 25 seconds in the United States.

  • The average value of a stolen vehicle was approximately $6,797 at time of theft.

  • Thieves chose certain vehicles because of the huge profit potential when the cars are stripped down to their components, a practice that supplies a vast black market for stolen parts.

  • The recent popularity of minivans, pickups, trucks, and sport utility vehicles is making them an increasingly attractive target for thieves.

  • Nearly 40 percent of all vehicle thefts occur in or near ports or border communities.

It is important to note that vehicle theft is the second most profitable crime in the United States, surpassed only by trafficking in illegal narcotics. Vehicle theft is also the costliest property crime in the United States, costing consumers more than $8.6 billion annually, according to National Insurance Crime Bureau statistics.

Law enforcement agencies are up against the following:

  • Organized criminal groups that steal and strip vehicles for resale.

  • Criminals who are high-tech, innovative, and using online auctions to part out stolen vehicles. Today, police departments are assigning investigators to monitor online auction sites to detect fraud in the area of stolen vehicle parts.

  • Terrorists who want to use stolen vehicles to commit acts of terror.

Chop Shops
Experienced car thieves can enter and steal a vehicle in less than a minute; the less experienced simply smash the driver's window to gain entry. Many take the vehicles to shops to be stripped of the component parts that can then be sold for more than the complete car. Some estimates place the parts value at two or three times the value of the vehicle. Stripping a vehicle can take as little as 30 minutes.

Xenon headlights, air bags, and global positioning systems are especially desirable components to take off a vehicle. But all parts are taken, and they enter the retail market through scrap and auto-body shops.

Officer Training Is Critical
Major cities in Ohio, as in other large cities in the United States, are reporting increased auto theft activities; on the other hand, some cities that at one time had consistent problems with auto thefts are reporting lower totals of vehicle thefts. A major part in this reduction in these cities is increasing awareness of the problem as well as the in-depth training and education of street officers who are detecting stolen vehicles in their areas.

In order to reduce auto theft, law enforcement managers must commit more resources to training patrol officers in detecting and recovering stolen vehicles and apprehending suspects connected with those crimes.

As chair of the IACP Vehicle Theft Committee, I urge each police manager to look for ways to increase each officer's awareness and understanding of what "looking beyond the traffic stop" really means. This is a critical area, particularly for new officers, because when officers look beyond the traffic stop, they can discover other criminal activity and can contribute to auto theft recovery, drug interdiction, felony apprehensions, and the interruption of terrorist activities.

Hot Times and Hot Locations
Every police department should keep track of the times and locations that vehicle theft occurs and include this information in the crime analysis briefing provided to officers at the beginning of their shifts.

Vehicles are stolen from every imaginable place-streets, driveways, parking lots, garages, car dealerships. Through crime analysis, most departments will observe that local vehicle theft occurs with greater frequency where large groups of cars are parked together for extended periods, such as shopping malls, large apartment complexes, movie theaters, sporting events, airports, colleges, and fairgrounds. The attracting factors are the high probability of the right make and model of car being available, the high number of escape routes, and the low likelihood of knowing the owner of the vehicle.

One technique to help curb vehicle theft is to equip and train attendants at fee parking lots to inspect and record positive identification (driver's license and vehicle license number) from any driver claiming to have lost his or her parking ticket. This technique can significantly reduce thefts in fee lots. Requiring drivers to exit a parking lot past a ticket taker at a booth that also videotapes the driver and the vehicle can provide strong investigative leads.

The time of the theft will depend on the setting. Car thefts at shopping centers occur mostly during business hours when vehicles are left unattended for hours, whereas thefts from large apartment complexes occur at night after the residents have returned from work and settled in for the evening.

Knowing the times and locations of a community's vehicle thefts allows police leaders to direct patrol efforts to curtail the problem.

In Ohio, police have learned several things about car theft. Most "professional" auto thieves are also involved in illegal drug activities. Statistics reveal that the typical auto thief is an adult male between the ages of 16 and 25. Subjects arrested in past investigations have come from all socioeconomic groups, have been both male and female, and have ranged in age from 12 to 65. But most auto theft suspects share two traits: greed and addiction to illegal narcotics. These characteristics become readily evident to officers who take the time to look beyond the traffic stop.

Homeland Security and Vehicle Theft
Today, state and local police departments have a greater responsibility for working to secure the homeland and striving to preempt future terrorist attacks. It is important to understand that local law enforcement's new primary role is that of first preventers, not first responders.

It is critical that law enforcement managers ensure that each police agency sticks to its core mission. Whether that mission is saving lives through highway safety enforcement or preventing crime in urban environments, its patrol officers must stay true to the core mission of the agency.

Whatever the mission, one element connects all of law enforcement: traffic stops. Through traffic stops, officers develop skills that teach them how to talk to people, and what specific indicators of criminal activity to look for beyond the traffic stop.

The more skilled officers become, the more success they will have in criminal interdiction, including auto larceny enforcement. Traffic enforcement is integrated into all other crime-fighting efforts. Police managers must make a commitment to enhance the department's auto larceny program, because so many other crimes can be discovered through integrated traffic enforcement.

Terrorist Links and Vehicle Theft
Law enforcement has known for years that auto theft is linked to organized crime and drug activity. Now, local law enforcement must realize that transportation is a key element in terrorist strategies. Public transportation attacks in London, England, earlier this year reminded us that transportation systems are targets for terrorists.

Modes of transportation are also tools for terrorists. Often, the vehicles used in terrorist car bombings are stolen. Commercial vehicles, and the dangerous and hazardous cargos they sometimes haul, are obviously inviting pieces of equipment for terrorists. A hazardous cargo explosion in a populated area could kill and injure many and disrupt the economy for some time.

The business plan for terrorists is to live, work, and plan in the community's neighborhoods. Examples of this business plan are being carried out across the United States. In Columbus, Ohio, an al Qaeda operative named Iyman Faris was a truck driver living in the community while at the same time planning large-scale terrorist attacks.

Examples of homegrown terrorists' interest in transportation targets have been included the sniper cases in Washington, D.C., and Columbus, Ohio. Timothy McVeigh was stopped for a traffic violation and apprehended just a few hours after the Oklahoma City bombing. In today's heightened security environment, it is critical that through professional traffic enforcement officers are prepared and ready to intercept the next Timothy McVeigh on the way to the next Oklahoma City.

The Changing Paradigm
Through an agency's core mission, including an increased emphasis on auto theft enforcement, officers can make a dramatic, positive impact on a community.

  • Auto theft programs can help reduce injury and fatality crashes.

  • Auto theft programs can help prevent crime.

  • Auto theft programs can help police disrupt drug-trafficking operations.

Because intelligence information continues to link virtually every increased terrorism threat level to some aspect of transportation, local departments must instill in each officer the awareness that success in homeland security, which directly involves successful auto larceny investigation, starts with the commitment of officers on the road to look beyond the traffic stop.

Additional Officer Training Is Necessary
Since April 2004, the Ohio State Highway Patrol has provided a one-day auto theft training class to over 200 uniformed troopers. These troopers are taking the information they learned and sharing it with other troopers. Although they received a lot of information in a short time, they were eager to learn and wanted to take the time to apply their new skills.

Becoming proficient in the investigation of auto larceny does not happen quickly. It is important that auto theft investigation training provide officers with the time they need to absorb the information and have their questions answered thoroughly.

In late November 2004, the Ohio State Highway Patrol initiated an auto theft investigator training program for selected officers. This training program gives officers an in-depth look at auto theft from the investigator's point of view. Specialized attention is given to fraudulent titling, salvaged \vehicle inspections, and alternate ways of identifying motor vehicles. Officers also obtain information about specialized vehicle theft task force operations and the use of bait cars in vehicle theft enforcement initiatives.

Managers expect the troopers who go through the course to become experts in the field of auto theft and mentors for other troopers. All law enforcement executives are encouraged to explore ways for top officers in vehicle theft investigation to share their experience, techniques, and valuable information with younger officers.

Supervisors' Role
Shift supervisors need to improve their knowledge and awareness of auto theft activity and provide the support to work with road officers on their shift to enhance their auto larceny investigation techniques. For example, officers must understand they need to slow down as they approach a vehicle they have stopped. This is not only crucial from an officer-safety standpoint, but it is also a good way to look for signs of criminal activity. Among these signs could be indicators of auto theft.

Make sure officers take the time necessary to look at the public VIN and the federal identification, question the ownership of the vehicle, make follow-up inquiries when needed, use all available law enforcement intelligence-gathering mechanisms, and feel confident in seeking supervisory assistance for additional help when needed.

No longer should officers and supervisors be satisfied with responding to incidents and properly enforcing the law. They have a greater responsibility to work toward securing the homeland and striving to prevent future terrorist attacks. Meeting this challenge means extending their focus and understanding that success begins with looking beyond the traffic stop.

Through traffic stops, officers recover stolen vehicles, prevent crashes, stop crimes, and apprehend dangerous criminals. Simply stated, traffic stops can also lead to the capture of terrorists.

Instead of being reactive, take the offensive and be aggressive in addressing the growing problem of vehicle theft. Closely examine local operations, and adjust training to help officers hone investigatory skills so they are better prepared to look beyond the traffic stop for specific criminal and terrorist indicators.

It all starts with looking beyond the traffic stop. ■

The award recognizes outstanding efforts in reducing vehicle theft. Agencies both large and small have an equal chance of winning; entries are judged on initiative, use of available resources, and overall results.

Category 1 (1-250 Officers)

Mesquite, Texas, Police Department
Chief Gary Westphal

This agency aimed to reduce the incidence of auto thefts occurring both in major retail areas and on new and used car lots. To that end, it formed a task force that employed the following techniques:

  • Bike patrols by officers on overtime, as well as by school resource officers during the summer months and the holiday season

  • Skywatch, which provides an officer a 28-foot perch above retail areas

  • VIN-etching (83 vehicles were marked the first day it was offered, and 350 were marked during 2004)

  • Placing marked but recently retired squad cars as deterrents on new and used car lots, requiring participating dealerships' confidentiality and the squad cars' daily movement on those lots

The Mesquite Police Department reduced auto theft in the targeted areas 32 percent in 2004 over 2003 (from 99 thefts in 2003 to 67 in 2004) and intends to expand its deployment of retired police vehicles.

Puyallup, Washington, Police Department
Chief Robin T. James

This city of 35,690 residents and 51 sworn officers recently had been receiving more than 400 stolen vehicle reports annually. The police department formed a problem-oriented policing (POP) unit to address, among other issues, vehicle theft, and its response included the following:

  • Analyzing past and present theft reports to identify those reporting areas where vehicle thefts occurred most frequently, as well as the types of vehicles stolen

  • Developing a citywide community awareness prevention plan focused on opportunistic vehicle theft: monthly presentations to the business association and to apartment managers, six presentations at community meetings held in different geographical areas of the city, and discussions during the agency's spring and fall citizens' police academies

  • Debriefing arrestees

  • Partnering with the LoJack Corporation to install its tracking equipment in six police vehicles

  • Publicizing the agency's efforts in the local media

  • Distributing brochures

This agency's efforts reduced vehicle theft in its jurisdiction 12.4 percent in 2004 over 2003 (381 stolen vehicles versus 435).

Category 2 (251-1,000 Officers)

Corpus Christi, Texas, Police Department
Chief Pete Alvarez

The police department initiated both educational and enforcement strategies that reduced vehicle theft 17 percent in 2004 over 2003 and 30 percent in 2004 over 2001, the year before its efforts in this regard commenced; its recovery rate remained at 80 percent. The department's educational efforts included the following:

  • Offering twice-weekly presentations-in both English and Spanish-to various community groups at which pertinent pamphlets were distributed and after which participants could register for Heat (Help Eliminate Auto Theft) and could have their vehicles' windows VIN-etched. In 2004, 6,500 persons attended these presentations, 294 of whom registered for Heat and 626 of whom had their windows VIN-etched. No Heat-registered or VIN-etched vehicle has been stolen in Corpus Christi.

  • Adding a tag line ("Leaving your keys anywhere in the vehicle can be the start of big problems.") to utility bills in May 2004, and distributing 89,000 vehicle theft prevention pamphlets distributed with those utility bills in July 2004.

  • Arranging for the display of messages about auto theft on billboards along major thoroughfares, on the screen at a movie theater, in television commercials, and on Corpus Christi's five "most wanted"(most stolen) vehicle posters in public venues.

  • Instituting a facsimile alert system operated by new car dealers to warn each other of scam artists.

  • Entering in the Buccaneer Days Parade a recovered stolen vehicle that had been stripped.

The department's enforcement efforts included the following:

  • Making vehicle theft investigators available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, on a callout basis

  • Apprising officers via e-mail of theft trends, case updates, and hot tips

  • Establishing a one-hour block of vehicle theft training in the in-service training curriculum

  • Holding a one-day regional training for law enforcement and insurance company investigators semiannually

  • Referring vehicle theft reports to a crime analyst so patterns and trends could be identified

Category 3 (1,001 or More Officers)

California Highway Patrol
Commissioner Michael L. Brown

Vehicle thefts in the California Highway Patrol's (CHP) jurisdiction rose 22 percent between 2001 and 2003. The CHP identified five major categories of vehicle theft and developed strategies to attack each:

  • Transportation theft (where vehicles are stolen for transportation and auto burglary) accounts for 85 percent of vehicle thefts and is combated by multi jurisdictional task forces, through bait car programs, through random personal watercraft and vessel inspections, through aggressive public awareness campaigns, through a toll-free line on which to report vehicle theft activity, and through the efforts of the public affairs officers assigned to each of its 102 field offices. The CHP, in conjunction with the National Insurance Crime Bureau, has implemented both fixed-post and mobile license plate reader systems that automatically scan registration plates and instantaneously alert officers of stolen vehicle hits. Moreover, it has developed a 40-hour advanced training course for investigators and patrol officers from both the CHP and allied agencies.
  • Commercial/cargo theft is expensive and has national and localized economic repercussions. CHP's Cargo Theft Interdiction Program prevents thefts of commercial vehicles and cargoes and increases recoveries of stolen items by coordinating multi jurisdictional investigations and by identifying which stolen commercial vehicles contain cargo. Two hundred fifteen cargoes valued in excess of $12 million were recovered in 2004.

  • Professional theft and exportation of stolen vehicles is addressed by multi jurisdictional cooperative strategies to deter and recover stolen vehicles. These strategies include the Vehicle Theft Investigation Training Program, the Foreign Export And Recovery Program, and the Mexico Liaison Program. The CHP recovered 20 percent more vehicles (with a total value of $27 million) and prosecuted 143 percent more suspects in 2004 than in 2003.

  • Salvaged vehicle schemes that use both stolen parts and VINs from salvaged vehicles are handled by officers who conduct inspections of salvaged vehicles prior to their being retitled. Those inspections recovered 64 stolen vehicles in 2004 and 58 in 2003.

  • Insurance fraud is investigated by CHP's Urban Insurance Fraud Task Force Units.

The CHP's approach and programs already are reaping benefits. The number of vehicle thefts in CHP jurisdiction declined by 8 percent in 2004, the first such reduction in three years. The CHP consistently recovers more than 11 percent of all vehicles stolen in that state.

Category 4 (Multiagency Task Forces)

Lawrence, Massachusetts, Police Department
Chief John J. Romero

The Lawrence Auto Insurance Fraud Strike Force was organized after the September 2003 death of a grandmother who willingly had participated in a staged collision; its purposes were to reduce vehicle theft (Lawrence's auto theft rate had been the second highest in the United States) and the fraud resulting from vehicle crashes in a concerted effort to annihilate Lawrence's earned reputation as the state's insurance fraud capital. In addition to the police department, the Essex County District Attorney's Office, the Office of the Attorney General, the Insurance Fraud Bureau of Massachusetts, and insurance companies' investigative units were represented on the strike force.

Lawrence police officials believe the introduction of the CompStat process in the police department contributed to the steady decline of vehicle thefts, from 1,979 in 1999 to 597 in 2004, a 74 percent reduction. Over 86 percent of the vehicles stolen were recovered in 2003 and in 2004.

Officials attacked the problem of fraudulent collisions by doing the following:

  • Enacting a state law making hiring or acting as a runner (a person who is paid to stage false collisions and to direct clients to health care providers and lawyers) a felony

  • Enabling the state's medical licensing boards to oversee chiropractic and physical therapy clinics

  • Implementing an insurance fraud tip reward program

The efforts of the strike force have led to 124 arrests (including chiropractors and attorneys) for filing millions of dollars' worth of fraudulent claims, a 33 percent reduction in fake collisions, a 50 percent decrease in stolen vehicle reports, and an estimated $25 million decline in false insurance claims. ■



From The Police Chief, vol. 72, no. 11, November 2005. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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