5 ways officials are trying to stop Pinellas' teenage car thieves

U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, left, takes notes as St. Petersburg Police Chief Anthony Holloway, right, talks about car thefts in St. Petersburg during a meeting earlier this month.
U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, left, takes notes as St. Petersburg Police Chief Anthony Holloway, right, talks about car thefts in St. Petersburg during a meeting earlier this month.
Published July 21, 2017

In the last week of June, bleeding into the first days of July, 20 cars went missing in the city of St. Petersburg. Nearly all were left unlocked, with keys inside — some still jammed in the ignition — the prime targets of juvenile auto thieves.

Police say it's a reminder of the countywide problem documented by the Tampa Bay Times this spring in "Hot Wheels." The series showed that kids in Pinellas crashed stolen cars once every four days in an 18-month period and were arrested more often for stealing cars than anywhere else in Florida.

"Why do we have 10-, 12-, 13-year-old kids stealing cars?" said St. Petersburg Police Chief Anthony Holloway at a recent meeting of community leaders that focused on how to fight the trend. "How do we break the cycle?"

Local leaders are now investing time and money to answer that question. Citing the Times' findings, they're trying several different approaches, from keeping kids busy outside of school to strengthening the courts that punish the most frequent offenders.

[ HOT WHEELS: Kids are driving Pinellas County's car-theft epidemic. It's a dangerous — sometimes deadly — game. Click to read the whole series.

U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, D-St. Petersburg, wants to give auto thieves something better to do.

After reading the Times series, Crist called an emergency meeting of community leaders, police chiefs and lawmakers. That led to a series of meetings to brainstorm solutions.

A repeated theme in the early discussions was the lack of youth activities in the impoverished areas of St. Petersburg where many car thieves live. Thieves told the Times they were bored, and that taking cars was both a means to get somewhere and an activity within itself.

Crist is now pursuing funding for programs to keep those kids engaged. He told the Times that he is looking for ways to channel more federal dollars into local extracurricular activities, using programs like Community Development Block Grants from the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

"That has to be a component of it," he said, adding that "the obligation exists throughout the levels of government — the local, the state and yes, the federal."

Crist's office said the congressman has also already written letters of support for funding for Pinellas organizations including YouthBuild, which teaches construction skills and helps at-risk teens get their GEDs.

He is planning to host a forum with local teenagers to find out which types of programs and activities they'd most like to see in St. Petersburg, before holding a federal grants workshop in the fall.

"The thought of hearing from the youth about what some of the root causes may be, and what's going on, and the challenges they're facing every day (will) give us better insight on how to stem the tide in our community," Crist said.

The Pinellas Sheriff's Office plans to connect the families of the most troubled children with social workers who can address the underlying problems in their home lives.

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Deputies will make referrals specifically to two newly hired social workers, who are assigned to the Sheriff's Office and tasked with connecting families to existing services in the county. They will get kids help for an array of issues, including substance abuse, mental health problems and other aggravating factors that can lead a kid to crime.

The positions are being paid for by the Juvenile Welfare Board, a publicly funded group that supports programs for children and families. At the start, the workers — called "Navigators" — will make home visits in the Pinellas Park area, which has seen an increase in juvenile auto theft arrests. The program will cost about $150,000 a year.

The partnership with a local mental health services department is the first of its kind, Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said. The social workers will take recommendations and work closely with members of a unit called Habitual Offender Monitoring Enforcement, or HOME, which checks on some of the most county's most chronic juvenile offenders in the evening hours, when the courts have mandated they be home.

"You gotta break the mold," the sheriff said. "You gotta crack it and do something differently."

St. Petersburg's leading mayoral candidates are debating the best structure for the city's police department to investigate car thefts.

In recent public forums, residents have peppered the candidates with questions about the topic. One man, speaking at the first mayoral debate in May, said his car had been stolen or burglarized six times since December.

Former Mayor Rick Baker, who is running against current Mayor Rick Kriseman, has vowed to reorganize the police department to create a unit focused exclusively on auto theft.

"You have to have a specific program within the city, within the police department, to go after auto thefts," Baker said. "You have to have a specific, focused effort on it."

St. Petersburg had a standalone unit until late 2016. Under Kriseman, police leaders folded the auto theft detectives into a larger, broader team that also investigates home burglaries and bike thefts. Kriseman has defended the decision, saying he now has more eyes on all these crimes.

"You can't use a little simple paintbrush that he's trying to use to paint the scene," Kriseman said. "It's more complicated than that."

Baker says the problem demands its own specialized detectives. He said he has visited neighborhoods across the city on the campaign trail, and auto theft has come up in his conversations in nearly every one. "It's now at epidemic proportions," he said.

State lawmakers have also sought to make it easier for police and court officials to keep juvenile car thieves off the street.

One of the reasons teenagers keep stealing cars is they know that immediately after their arrest, they can't be held in county detention centers for more than 21 days, a limit set by state law. They told the Times that the 21 days are not a deterrent.

Over the course of the fall, as reporters asked state lawmakers and the sheriff about their findings, officials drafted legislation in Tallahassee. Their goal was to find a way to hold the most chronic delinquents without dropping a sledgehammer on a one-time wrongdoer.

The week after the series ran, the Legislature passed the "prolific juvenile offender" bill, ensuring kids with the longest records remain in detention centers or on electronic monitoring until their cases are sorted out. Prosecutors will also now be required to bring such cases to trial or a plea agreement within 45 days; previously there was no time limit. The bill is expected to affect about 371 juveniles statewide.

Sen. Jack Latvala, who sponsored a version of the bill, invoked the memory of the three St. Petersburg girls who racked up seven grand theft auto arrests between them before driving a stolen car into a cemetery pond and drowning last year.

"Yes, we're protecting 20 million people from 371 people, but I think what we're also doing is protecting those 371 people from themselves," Latvala said.

Gov. Rick Scott signed the bill into law June 23. It will take effect Oct. 1.

The state Department of Juvenile Justice may bring more changes in the fall, when it reevaluates the guidelines that control how seriously juvenile car theft can be punished.

Right now, many kids arrested for grand theft auto go right back home — never mind the 21-day limit.

That's because grand theft auto is classified as a property crime, not a violent one. In the eyes of the law, it's no different from stealing $300 worth of groceries from Publix.

Kids must score 12 points or higher on the state's Detention Risk Assessment Instrument, or DRAI, to be held in detention for any amount of time after their arrest. The DRAI determines if a child should be held based on his or her history and current charges. A child can be caught twice in two weeks for grand theft auto and still not score 12 points.

Later this year, the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice plans to reevaluate the DRAI for the first time in nearly a decade.

After reading the Times stories, DJJ Secretary Christina Daly said she was surprised by how little kids feared the repercussions of stealing cars.

"That's concerning," said Daly, who expects auto theft to be "an important part" of the reevaluation. "One of the things that really stuck out to me was the need for the community to come together for solutions."

Contact Lisa Gartner at Follow her on Twitter @lisagartner. Contact Zachary T. Sampson at Follow him on Twitter @zacksampson.