Sunday, May 20, 2018
Public safety

Auto thefts down, but the same types of cars keep showing up

It was early on a recent Saturday morning. A man on a bike rode up to a 1991 Honda Accord parked at St. Petersburg General Hospital.

A security camera recorded him stealing the car. It took less than five minutes. When police found it across town a few days later, a baby seat was gone, a stereo was missing and the Honda emblem was removed from the trunk.

Authorities weren't surprised. Older model Hondas—those made during the 1990s — are among the easiest to steal.

In fact, the 1994 Honda was the nation's most frequently stolen car in 2011, according to a report recently released by the National Insurance Crime Bureau. The top car in Florida? The 2006 Ford pickup.

St. Petersburg police spokesman Mike Puetz said his agency also keeps a list of "high-theft" vehicles, many of which also make national and state rankings.

"The list really doesn't change that much," Puetz said.

The frequency of the crime, however, has changed.

Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco county law enforcement agencies have seen auto thefts steadily drop, a trend that has become more dramatic over the past five years.

Puetz said auto thefts in the first half of this year are down more than 2 percent compared with the same period in 2011. The department has seen a 40 percent decrease from 2007 to 2011.

The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office recorded a nearly 69 percent decrease in grand theft auto reports between June 2007 and the end of June this year, data shows. Even Clearwater, which saw a slight bump in auto thefts this summer compared with last, had a 54 percent drop from 2007 to 2011.

In Tampa, police have seen a steady and dramatic plunge in car thefts over the past decade. In 2002, the city reported 6,720 vehicles. Last year: 633.

Years ago, police considered auto theft a juvenile crime with no huge consequences. Now, they believe it's connected to other crimes, including burglary. It has been one of the four crimes the agency has focused on over the past decade, said Tampa police Sgt. Michael Stout.

"It has paid off not only in our reduction in auto thefts, but our overall crime reduction," he said.

The Hillsborough Sheriff's Office reports that the Honda Accord, Honda Civic and the Ford F-series trucks are the vehicles most frequently stolen in the county, corresponding with statewide statistics.

Criminals steal older vehicles to sell as scrap metal. When it comes to newer vehicles, deputies say, the thefts are often crimes of opportunity: People leave their keys in the ignition or on the front seat.

The decreases aren't being noticed just at the larger departments.

"It's way down in our area, too," said Sgt. Tom Woodman, police spokesman for Gulfport police.

Statistics from Gulfport show that in the first half of last year, police recorded 24 auto thefts. There's only been nine the first half of this year — a drop of more than 60 percent.

Woodman said he wasn't sure what specifically caused the drop. But he floated the idea that the department's loosened chase policy, which allows officers to chase after auto theft suspects, could be a factor.

"I don't know if that may have had an effect," he said. "Maybe word got out that we'll chase those guys."

Auto thefts are often considered "gateway crime," said Sgt. Ken Luth, who heads the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office auto theft unit.

That's because they're usually committed by juveniles who don't face the same punishments as adult offenders, Luth said.

Luth said his detectives have known kids who can steal a car in a matter of three minutes. They frequently go after older cars because the security systems aren't as sophisticated, he said.

And they usually don't limit themselves to a single car theft.

"Quite often, while in commute from one location to another, they're committing other crimes," Luth said.

That's one of the reasons St. Petersburg police decided on a new approach to auto thefts a few years ago. The department created COTA — the Career Offender Tracking and Apprehension unit.

Officers on that team keep close tabs on the most notorious offenders, many of whom are juvenile car thieves.

"We scrutinize them a lot more," Puetz said. "It seems to work."

That doesn't mean, however, that the problem is gone.

Authorities said they routinely have auto theft issues at large apartment complexes and mall parking lots. Many times, drivers leave their cars unlocked or their keys inside.

Luth recently thumbed through a stack of reports on his desk. The week wasn't over, and there were already 10.

"It's not going away any time soon. We still stay very active," Luth said. "We have cars stolen every day. Every day."

Pasco County has seen a sharp decrease in auto theft cases.

For most of the last decade, the number of auto thefts in Pasco County numbered at about 1,000, peaking at 1,280 in 2006. But beginning in 2009, that number started to drop. Last year it was 668, a 52 percent drop.

Kevin Doll, Pasco Sheriff's Office spokesman, speculated that auto thieves may have been discouraged by a state law that regulates scrap metal sales and makes it easier for law enforcement to find thieves if a vehicle turns up stolen.

Before the law passed, he said, car thieves could easily sell off stolen vehicles at scrap yards, saying they'd lost the title. Before cutting a check, the law now requires scrap yard operators to record a profile of metal sellers, including full name, age, height, weight, address, phone number and thumb print.

"That may be part of the reason," Doll said. "It's harder."

Times staff writers Jessica Vander Velde and Alex Orlando contributed to this report. Kameel Stanley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8643.

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