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Car thefts plummet in St. Petersburg

ST. PETERSBURG — Nearly 500 cars were stolen in St. Petersburg the first four months of 2008.

The exact number, 489, reflects a 44.6 percent citywide decrease from the same time frame last year, when 883 cars were taken from local streets and parking lots.

In the 12 cities patrolled by the Sheriff's Office, officials say the number of auto thefts has dipped more than 16 percent in the first four months of this year compared with the first four of 2007.

Why the drop?

The Sheriff's Office credits patrol work, informed citizens and the "up and down" nature of reported crimes in back-to-back years.

But in St. Petersburg, police say it's because they've arrested many of the 50 or more "hard core" teenage car thieves identified when the department beefed up its presence with the state's Department of Juvenile Justice.

Off the streets, they are serving 12- to 18-month sentences in a juvenile commitment program, police spokesman Bill Proffitt said.

"We're seeing the benefit of our efforts last summer," he said.

Most thefts take place in areas populated with lots of people and cars, like the parking lots of retail centers and the large apartment complexes bordering the north and south tips of the city.

A St. Petersburg Times analysis of police data shows that the downtown, Greater Pinellas Point and Childs Park areas have the highest concentration of auto thefts in St. Petersburg.

The lowest? Azalea, Bahama Shores, Bayou Highlands, Bear Creek, East Lealman, Garden Manor Lake, Lake Euclid, Lake Pasadena, Mangrove Bay, Maximo, Patrician Point, Riviera Bay, Shore Acres, Sterling Manor, West Lake Estates and Woodlawn Oaks.

The most likely cars to be stolen are Jeep Cherokees and Chrysler and Dodge models, police say.

Those manufacturers don't equip most of their keys with computer chips, making it easier for thieves to break the steering column and engage the ignition switch to start the car manually.

Also, police say, many older model Toyotas and Saturns are stolen to be stripped of their parts.

Less common are the random acts, where thieves shop the streets for a particular make and model. Those can happen anywhere.

Cheap rides for teens

For the most part, Proffitt said, stealing cars remains a young man's game. The average age of a car thief in St. Petersburg is 14 to 17.

"They know they won't be punished as an adult," Proffitt said.

It's not unusual for thieves to steal one car, drive it for a while and then ditch it, only to steal a different car in the same parking lot.

"It's cheap transportation for them," Proffitt said. "They don't have to buy gas."

Police are again rolling out Operation Safe Summer, a program designed to bring school resource officers into the community to push "on-the- fence" juveniles away from crime.

Plus, about three auto-theft prevention rallies are held throughout the city each month. There, you can get a free Club antitheft device. Just bring proof you live in St. Petersburg or work for the city.

Police also recommend a renaissance in common sense. Keep car doors locked. Close your windows. And don't leave the engine running when you're not in the car. (Police point to a March theft in which a man stole a running SUV while the vehicle's owner stepped away briefly. Her baby was in the back seat.)

"It's the most preventable crime in America," Proffitt said.

In some cities, a rise

Still, the threat looms large. The number of auto thefts in Pinellas Park in 2008 has remained virtually the same as the first four months of last year.

Seminole has seen thefts increase from seven to 15 in the same period of time.

Meanwhile, St. Petersburg police said that many of the teens collared in the 2007 roundup are nearing release from juvenile detention.

Reformed or not, many will still fit the profile of a local car thief.

Police say they'll be watching.

Casey Cora can be reached at (813) 226-3386 or at ccora@sptimes.com.

A St. Petersburg Times analysis of police data shows that the downtown, Greater Pinellas Point and Childs Park areas have the highest concentration of auto thefts in St. Petersburg.

Car thefts plummet in St. Petersburg 05/24/08 [Last modified: Saturday, May 24, 2008 4:36am]
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