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  1. St. Petersburg

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

Officers with the Habitual Offender Monitor Enforcement task force talk to a woman who has previously been arrested for auto theft. The task force has been credited with reducing juvenile auto theft, though a study says problems go beyond law enforcement, and that Pinellas County cannot arrest its way to a solution. [DIRK SHADD | Times (2016)]
Published Aug. 15

ST. PETERSBURG — A group studying juvenile auto theft in Pinellas County presented a grim state of affairs to City Council members on Thursday. That clashes with the stance of Mayor Rick Kriseman, whose spokesman said police have "a solid grip on the issue."

One of the study's key findings says, "The joyriding epidemic is spreading like the flu moving beyond geography, income and race." Another declares that "Some youth see consequences like arrest as incentives."

The findings were part of a study undertaken by the Caruthers Institute, a St. Petersburg-based think tank, and they contradict Kriseman's narrative that "the strides have been remarkable thanks to our police efforts and our community's help."

"I would vehemently disagree, the data does not support that he has a grip on the problem," said institute president Dewey Caruthers. "The very dangerous rumor going around is a sense that this problem is solved."

Thursday was the first time council members saw the preliminary results of the study, which the institute undertook after the 2017 Tampa Bay Times series "Hot Wheels," which found that over an 18-month period, law enforcement officers in Pinellas County made more juvenile grand theft auto arrests than anywhere else in Florida.

HOT WHEELS: Read the 2017 Tampa Bay Times investigation about the teens who turned stealing cars into a dangerous and deadly game in Pinellas County. It's a dangerous — sometimes deadly — game

According to Caruthers, the study included a review of literature on juvenile auto theft; more than 100 meetings with judges, politicians, police chiefs, teen auto thieves and others; a survey of juvenile justice experts; and a ride-along with officers.

But first, the study outlined the problem: Pinellas County ranked No. 1 in juvenile auto theft arrests in Florida four out of the past five years, coming in second the fifth year. Four of the state's top 20 zip codes for teen auto thefts were in St. Petersburg and Clearwater. The city has released statistics showing the number of vehicles reported stolen fell by 51 percent from 2015 to 2018, from 1,523 to 746. Juvenile auto theft arrests during the first six months of 2019 were up from last year. Police officials and Caruthers agree it's difficult to draw conclusions based solely on arrests.

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

Caruthers likened any improvement to it to a morbidly obese person celebrating the loss of 50 pounds. "That's great, but this is just the beginning," he said.

Researchers broke up their 12 key findings into three categories: "Pinellas youth arrested," "responses to the epidemic" and "solutions."

The findings on joyriding and youth seeing consequences as incentives were included in the first category. Others in that category were that arrests of white juveniles on auto theft charges are on the rise, while arrests of black juveniles are declining.

RELATED: Stolen car leads to murder charge in death of St. Petersburg woman, police say

The second category gives credit to law enforcement. A local law enforcement task force called Habitual Offender Monitoring Enforcement has been responsible for much of the reductions the city has seen in juvenile auto theft, Caruthers wrote. Yet, the study says, most of the efforts to curb teen auto theft have been focused on law enforcement and the city cannot arrest its way out of the problem.

The declarations did come with proposed solutions: treat joyriding like a public health crisis, find "credible messengers" like peers to communicate with juvenile offenders and set up conferences by which offenders must make amends with victims.

The research cost $55,000, and St. Petersburg contributed $10,000, the only public entity to do so, Caruthers said. The bulk of the rest came from foundations.The final draft will be released next month, Caruthers said.

Caruthers on Thursday asked for $40,000 to begin what he called phase two, which is preparing for a pilot program.

A city spokesperson said Mayor Rick Kriseman does not support continuing to fund the study with city dollars.

"We defer to (Police Chief Tony) Holloway as it relates to the actions being taken to continue to bring down auto thefts, but Mayor Kriseman has no interest in giving additional money to an outside consultant when experts within our police department already have a solid grip on the issue," spokesman Ben Kirby said.

Kriseman wouldn't say whether he agreed with or disputed the study's findings because, according to Kirby, the mayor did not read the 57-slide presentation. He instead relied on feedback he received from Holloway.

Police officials also confirmed the study had nothing to do with Holloway's decision to withdraw from the county's Violent Crimes Task Force, which was targeting juvenile auto theft.

RELATED: A Pinellas task force focuses on stolen cars. Why did St. Petersburg police leave it?

Contact Josh Solomon at jsolomon@tampabay.com or (813) 909-4613. Follow @ByJoshSolomon.

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