Juvenile auto thieves still plague Pinellas County

Once an epidemic, Pinellas County has seen a drop in juvenile auto theft arrests. But a study says the phenomenon isn’t disappearing. It’s evolving.
This 2016 photo was taken after three teens stole a Toyota Camry from a driver who was grabbing coffee at 7 a.m. and crashed it into a parked car about a block away. St. Petersburg police arrested three teens ages 15, 15, and 16.
This 2016 photo was taken after three teens stole a Toyota Camry from a driver who was grabbing coffee at 7 a.m. and crashed it into a parked car about a block away. St. Petersburg police arrested three teens ages 15, 15, and 16. [ St. Petersburg Police Department ]
Published Oct. 29, 2019

Last week, in the span of two days, St. Petersburg police touted the arrest of five teens and the recovery of five stolen cars.

Officers booked teens ages 15 to 18 on charges of auto burglary, auto theft and violating juvenile probation. Records show at least two of them had been arrested for stealing cars earlier this month.

The juvenile car theft phenomenon is alive and well in Pinellas County. But according to a new study by the Caruthers Institute, a nonpartisan St. Petersburg think tank, officials may not be thinking about it the right way.

The problem isn’t so much crime, the report’s author Dewey Caruthers told a small meeting of public officials Monday. It’s joyriding. People die — 12 is the toll in Pinellas County alone since 2016 — because young auto thieves enjoy the thrill of being behind the wheel.

HOT WHEELS: Read the Tampa Bay Times special report on Pinellas’ juvenile auto theft epidemic.

The study followed a 2017 Tampa Bay Times series “Hot Wheels” that outlined what was then an epidemic. Kids were getting arrested for stealing cars in Pinellas County more than anywhere else in Florida. Often taking advantage of owners leaving the keys in their vehicles, the kids were pushing speeds of 100 miles per hour, swerving between lanes, rushing through stop signs and crashing. The crisis was putting everyone on the road in danger.

The problem was worsened by a pervasive lack of fear of the juvenile justice system and gaps in social welfare and mentoring programs that repeatedly failed to pull kids out of bad situations, the Times report showed. To further complicate things, the problem forces officials to combat the rush that comes with stealing cars. Auto theft has become something like social currency in some youth circles.

Add all those factors up, Caruthers said, and the joyriding epidemic became a public health threat.

RELATED: At 14 he survived a stolen SUV crash that killed three. At 15 he stole again, deputies say.

Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said if juvenile car theft is a health epidemic, then law enforcement is treating the illness, not curing it. There were 415 juvenile auto theft arrests in Pinellas in 2015-16. That fell to 208 arrests in 2018-19 — a drop of 50 percent, Caruthers’ study noted.

But Caruthers said the phenomenon continues, only now it’s spreading demographically. Black kids still commit 76 percent of these offenses, but that number has fallen over the last five years, the report said. White children are now responsible for 20 percent of car thefts in the county, his study noted, citing numbers from the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice. Five years ago, that number was 13 percent.

Anecdotally, Caruthers said, law enforcement officers are reporting more thefts committed by middle-income children as well.

“On the ground, it does appear that it’s becoming less of a one sector issue,” said Pinellas-Pasco Assistant Public Defender Ari Weisberg, who specializes in juvenile law. “Years ago it was an anomaly to have a white kid from Oldsmar go out joyriding.”

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RELATED: A pedestrian killed. A sergeant injured. Stolen cars still haunt St. Petersburg.

Gualtieri believes the rise in the percentage of white offenders likely has more to do with the decline in the share of black offenders — and the steep decline in reported car thefts overall — than anything else.

But while the arrest numbers are down, the dangers of stolen cars still persists. In one July week in St. Petersburg, a police sergeant was injured when a 15-year-old crashed a stolen car into his vehicle and a pedestrian was killed by another stolen car.

Still, Pinellas law enforcement leaders say they’re making strides. Gualtieri and St. Petersburg Police Chief Tony Holloway say the county’s Habitual Offender Monitoring Enforcement has made a dent in the car theft problem. Caruthers’ study agrees.

That program, which Gualtieri likened to “intensive babysitting,” involves officers constantly checking up on repeat offenders without warning. Juveniles must also wear ankle monitors so law enforcement can track their locations.

RELATED: Is teen auto theft still out of control in St. Petersburg? Depends who you ask.

Recently, elected officials have pointed at the overall decline in juvenile auto theft as a reason for optimism. Caruthers presented his findings in August to the St. Petersburg City Council and asked for more money to fund a pilot teen intervention program. A spokesman for Mayor Rick Kriseman said he didn’t support funding it because city leaders felt they “already have a solid grip on the issue.”

Caruthers doesn’t agree. While Pinellas no longer leads the state in juvenile auto theft arrests, it is still second behind Broward County.

“It sounds like a reason to go ‘yay!’” Caruthers told Monday’s meeting about the decline in arrests. “Not really. We still rank second in the state. We’re still averaging four arrests per week.”

Times staff writer Zachary T. Sampson contributed to this report.