Why St. Paul?
With newer cars so much harder to steal, mid-to-late 1990s models continue to top the most-stolen list. Among the top 10 vehicles stolen in Minnesota in 2012: the 1996 Honda Accord, the 2000 Honda Civic and the 1998 Toyota Camry. Those cars are targeted by street racers, several police officials said.
One reason St. Paul has had high theft rates is that it’s historically where street racers congregate, police said.
St. Paul police officials did not comment on the city’s auto theft rates despite repeated requests. But others have theories.
“The gang scene back in St. Paul in the ’80s and ’90s centered around auto theft,” former St. Paul Police Chief John Harrington said. “Several of the big Hmong gangs got involved in auto theft for joy riding, gun store burglaries, chop shops and racing.”
For years, St. Paul police have tried some conventional and some unconventional ways to solve the problem. One year, Harrington said, the department bought glow-in-the-dark crosses and handed them out to residents of housing projects where many vehicles were stolen.
“Several gang members told us they were very religious and they wouldn’t steal a car with a rosary on the dash,” he said.
Ramsey County Attorney John Choi spearheaded the bill that passed the Legislature this year putting new restrictions on scrap metal dealers. In years past, vehicles of a certain age could be sold to a scrap metal dealer and crushed before their owners even knew they had been stolen. The new law will require scrap metal dealers and operators to begin recording information into the Automated Property System (APS) that’s now used to record pawnshop transactions, but it won’t take effect until January 2015.
Suburbs feel the sting
Last year, the police departments in the St. Paul suburbs of West St. Paul, Inver Grove Heights and South St. Paul each received money from the state Department of Commerce’s auto theft prevention program to buy license plate readers, which automatically scan plates and alert the officer if a vehicle is stolen or there’s an arrest warrant for the registered owner.
In West St. Paul in 2012, 91 vehicles were reported stolen, the most since 2004, when 93 were stolen. It was a significant increase from previous years, when the city averaged anywhere from 49 to 69.
Lt. Brian Sturgeon said most of the thefts happen in retail or apartment parking lots.
“We have a high population of transient residents, so to speak, low-income individuals who live in apartments throughout town. The crime of opportunity is just there.”
Although Brooklyn Center is sixth on the per capita list, with 46 vehicles stolen per 10,000 residents, auto thefts are down substantially so far this year, said Cmdr. Tim Gannon. In 2011, there were 48, in 2012, 62. So far this year there have been 39, Gannon said.
When Brooklyn Center officers see a vehicle left running, they try to educate the driver. If a such a vehicle is stolen, police take a report but also issue a ticket for “open ignition,” Gannon said.
Lorentz, who was assigned to the auto theft detail last year, said the numbers spiked in 2012 because a group of kids figured out how to steal late-model Dodges and “wreaked havoc, stealing them nightly to drive from Brooklyn Center and Brooklyn Park into Minneapolis.
“I was able to charge some of them,” Lorentz said. “That stopped the leaky faucet.”
Although Little Canada has fewer than 10,000 residents, it was No. 2 on the per capita auto theft list in 2012. Ramsey County Undersheriff Jack Serier attributed that to the city’s proximity to St. Paul.