Saturday, January 20, 2018
Politics

PolitiFact Florida: Taking a closer look at auto thefts in St. Petersburg

Whose epidemic is it anyway? The leading candidates in St. Petersburg's mayoral race are trading blows over the city's issue with automobile theft ahead of the Aug. 29 primary.

Former Mayor Rick Baker told a Tampa Bay Times reporter that auto theft is "now at epidemic proportions" under Mayor Rick Kriseman.

Kriseman defended himself on Twitter and Facebook with a graphic showing the problem appeared worse during Baker's time in office.

TIMES INVESTIGATION: Kids are driving Pinellas County's car-theft epidemic.

According to Kriseman's post, there were 2,761 auto thefts in 2006 under Baker, compared with 1,095 auto thefts in 2016 under Kriseman.

We wanted to look at the trend under both mayors.

The numbers Kriseman reported from the St. Petersburg Police Department checked out for those years.

Baker was mayor from April 2001 to January 2010. Kriseman's campaign plucked the worst year to make its counterpunch.

The year 2006 was the highest point for auto thefts since 2000 — although most other years were higher than any point in Kriseman's three full years since taking office in 2014.

Choosing to compare raw numbers from Baker's 2008 and Kriseman's 2015, though, could leave a different impression, with 1,461 and 1,523 thefts, respectively.

What does the bigger story tell you?

The rate of car thefts in St. Petersburg remains far higher than the national and state average, regardless of who was mayor.

"The number of auto-thefts, the number of auto burglaries, it's something you need to watch and something that's important, but the impact of the activity is more important than anything else," Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said.

And in recent years, the impact of automobile thefts, specifically juvenile auto thefts, has been a priority for the department.

The Tampa Bay Times documented the automobile theft issue, finding that children in Pinellas County were arrested more for stealing cars than anywhere else in Florida.

Gualtieri said 2015 was "ground zero" for the juvenile auto-theft problem and said that's when the department really started noticing the trend of young kids stealing cars. In early 2016, three teenage girls drove a stolen car into a cemetery pond and drowned. At the time, Gualtieri called the incident "unacceptable."

"Solutions need to come deep from within the community," Gualtieri said at the time. "Kids need to know there are consequences. This is a systematic and complex problem."

Automobile thefts became a priority for police in 2015 and 2016 — leading to a year-over-year drop.

Law enforcement officials consider juvenile auto thefts a countywide problem; a drop in St. Petersburg doesn't necessarily mean the problem is over.

Detective Paul Etcheson, who's been with the police department for almost nine years and works in the property crime unit, described automobile theft in St. Petersburg as a "revolving door."

"The reason the numbers have fallen in the previous months is because we have juveniles placed in programs, or on 21-day hold or something," he said. "As soon as they get back, they're right back at it."

As we said, 2006 was a high point for auto theft. We wanted to understand why.

Police officer Mark Williams, who has been with the department for over a decade, said cars were simply easier to steal in 2005 and 2006 like the Dodge Ram 1500. Older cars could be broken into with a screwdriver or a pair of scissors, he said.

Williams said automakers have done a better job of eliminating access points on cars. For instance, key holes are only on the driver side rather than on all doors.

In response to Kriseman's image, Baker said, "I've been to 50 neighborhood organizations in the last six months and if Rick Kriseman thinks he doesn't have an auto theft problem, he needs to get out more."

Kriseman's campaign emphasized the mayor is still concerned about automobile thefts, and said the image was meant to undermine Baker's remark that automobile theft is at "epidemic proportions."

We rate this claim Mostly True.

Contact Allison Graves at [email protected] Follow @AllisonBGraves.

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