GULFPORT — Police are cracking down on the city's fastest growing crime — auto thefts — and the juveniles responsible for most of them.
In 2009, 79 vehicles were stolen in Gulfport, up from 48 the year before and the most in the past five years, according to police Lt. Robert Vincent.
Only 6 percent of the crimes were solved last year, so police are doing something about it.
"There is a handful of kids who have become professional criminals. They do it so often, they know all our moves," Vincent said. "They wear gloves or socks on their hands to keep from leaving fingerprints."
They aren't selling the cars, Vincent said. They are just driving around and then abandoning the vehicles when the gas runs out or when they realize the police are on to them.
"They take them on joyrides or use them for crack trades. We have no container port to deal in stolen cars. There is no way to ship them from here. They aren't stealing them to sell them," he said.
"We see the stolen cars out there and people wonder why we don't stop them. Our policy is, we don't chase stolen cars," Vincent said.
There are a couple of good reasons for that policy. In addition to the obvious — that innocent bystanders are put in harm's way during a police chase — the chase would be limited to Gulfport. Once the car enters St. Petersburg or another adjoining community, police would be out of their jurisdiction, Vincent said.
So they are trying another tack to stop the young car thieves: nabbing them for something else.
Vincent said police will be assigned to watch their every move, looking for any infraction.
"The majority of these kids are already on some sort of probation," he said. "If their probation says they are supposed to be at home or at school at a certain time and they're not, they are going to jail."
Jail for kids is the Pinellas Juvenile Detention Center in Clearwater. Depending on prior arrests, juvenile offenders can be kept there until their parents pick them up or until they have committed enough crimes to be charged as an adult, Vincent said.
The auto theft crackdown started this week with officers collecting details of the city's juveniles who are on probation.
"We want to make them know there are consequences for running," Vincent said.