Technology deters auto thieves, but St. Paul remains a hot spot.
The new technology is so effective that if a newer car is reported stolen, the owner either left the keys in it or they’re “trying to bamboozle their insurance company,” said detective Steve Lorentz of the Brooklyn Center Police Department, one of the few suburban agencies that has had a full-time officer assigned exclusively to auto theft since the mid-2000s.
A Star Tribune analysis of 10 years of crime data from the Minnesota Department of Public Safety found that auto theft is down nearly across the board, mirroring the same trend nationally, as new cars equipped with anti-theft technology have appeared in more driveways nationwide.
Police departments also say they’ve taken a small group of gang members responsible for large numbers of thefts off the streets. St. Paul police aggressively target chop shops, businesses that dismantle stolen cars and sell the parts. A new state law passed this year will require scrap metal dealers to collect information on the owner, the seller and the vehicle, similar to the restrictions put on pawnshops.
And perhaps, some say, criminals have evolved, choosing more lucrative identity theft and online scams over the riskier business of vehicle theft.
Criminals today “can sit down with a laptop and dummy up an ID or steal someone’s ID and have a great time buying things,” said Frank Scafidi, a spokesman for the National Insurance Crime Bureau, which tracks vehicle theft nationally. “They don’t have to worry about stealing a car and getting caught on the street.”
In the seven-county metro area, vehicle thefts fell just shy of 50 percent, from 11,776 in 2005 to 5,923 in 2011, before bouncing back slightly in 2012. Minneapolis’ numbers dropped more than 55 percent during the same period, to 1,775 in 2011. St. Paul’s numbers dropped a more modest 26 percent, to a low of 1,805 in 2012.
Minneapolis used to have nearly twice as many auto thefts annually as St. Paul, but since 2009, the two cities have been roughly equal, despite Minneapolis having more than 100,000 more residents.
On a per capita basis, St. Paul led the metro-area list with 64.2 vehicles stolen per 10,000 residents in 2012. Eleven suburbs that surround it round out the top 15.
‘A huge hassle’
Mark Kaehler, who lives near New Auburn, Wis., and Carmen Kissel of Edina both fell victim to car theft after breaking what police say is the cardinal rule: They left their keys in their vehicles.
Kaehler, who renovates houses in St. Paul, had just backed up his 2011 Ford F150 pickup onto one of his rental properties in the Dayton’s Bluff area. He left his cellphone and his keys in the truck as he walked to the back door. In those few seconds, someone jumped in and took off with his truck and $5,000 worth of tools in the back.
Although police found the truck and Kaehler got it back a few days later, his tools were gone and there was about $4,800 worth of damage to the truck’s body. He was told that the truck had been used in a gang shootout, he said.
“Frankly, it’s a huge hassle,” he said. “I still haven’t gotten it straightened out.”
Police officials from around the metro said vehicle theft is largely a crime of opportunity, typically committed by young males who want to get from Point A to Point B, to commit another crime, to strip it for parts or sell it to a scrap yard for some quick cash.
People mistakenly think it’s safe to leave a vehicle running while they pop into the gas station for just a second. Or they leave a spare set of keys inside.
That’s what happened to Kissel when she went to a house party in Burnsville in March. She forgot to lock her 1999 Cadillac Deville, and there was a set of keys in the center console. When she went outside a few hours later, her car was gone.
“I swear he [the police officer] told me that most of the time they’re recovered within a couple of weeks,” she said. “But I never heard anything.”
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.
“I hate to say it, but really it becomes a suburban shopping mall for the urban bad guys,” he said.
Pat Pheifer • 952-746-3284