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Police use technology to put brakes on auto thefts

  • Article by: SHANNON PRATHER
  • Special to the Star Tribune
  • January 8, 2013 - 7:14 PM

A decade ago, car theft was a criminal investigation that often stalled soon after it started.

Brooklyn Center officers took stolen vehicle reports. But unless an officer happened upon a thief behind the wheel, the police didn't have much to go on. Victims waited for a call and picked up the remains of their vehicles at an impound lot.

Now Brooklyn Center police have revved up their efforts to combat auto theft. They dedicated one investigator solely to catching car thieves and now treat stolen vehicles like any other crime scene. They routinely call in the crime lab to swab for DNA and fingerprints.

That combination of forensics and investigative work -- along with better anti-theft technology installed by automakers -- has helped the city cut its auto theft rate in half. It's declined from 278 in 2001 to around 120 in 2012.

There's also been some tough love for victims who leave their cars running and unattended. Police regularly cite people under the city's "open ignition" ordinance. Victims leave the keys in the vehicle, either in the ignition or stashed in the center console, for an estimated one-third of all auto thefts in the city, police say.

"When I first started here 18 years ago, it was considered one of the lowest property crimes committed. It was an under-investigated crime," said Tim Gannon, Brooklyn Center police investigative commander. "We are now doing a much better job of solving these types of crimes. We've seen a lot of success. We are getting a number of convictions. We're looking at a downward trend."

Brooklyn Center is one of several west metro cities, including Minneapolis, Brooklyn Park and Bloomington, that has seen declining numbers of auto thefts during the past decade, according to Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension crime statistics. The number of auto thefts statewide has dropped 37 percent since 2004, according to the state Department of Commerce.

"Better technology has helped drive down those numbers," said Inspector Todd Milburn with Brooklyn Park police. Anti-theft devices that now come standard on new vehicles make it more difficult to steal a car so thieves look for other opportunities including stealing smaller items that can be sold online. Brooklyn Park police also are on the lookout for auto theft hot spots and will concentrate resources as needed, Milburn said.

In Brooklyn Center, Steven Lorentz took over the auto theft prevention investigator's job a year ago. The city created the position around 2005. It's paid for with a $104,000 grant from the state Commerce Department.

"A big part of it is having someone dedicated to the position and being able to understand it's the same people stealing over and over," Lorentz said. "If you can get a feel for who is doing one theft, you can solve five other auto thefts."

Brooklyn Center, a city of about 30,000 people and eight square miles, consistently ranks third in auto theft in Hennepin County, behind only Minneapolis and Brooklyn Park. The inner-ring suburb sits at the cross hairs of Interstates 94 and 694, and Hwys. 100 and 252 cut through the city.

For the Brooklyn Center investigator, it's a war fought on multiple fronts.

Lorentz looks for trends and hot spots of auto theft activity. The department uses a bait car, which snags chronic offenders. It collaborates with neighboring police agencies, and when a stolen vehicle is recovered, the Hennepin County crime lab processes it. Lorentz said they find DNA about 20 percent of the time.

Lorentz said he also does "knock and talks" with chronic offenders. The investigator visits known car thieves at their homes. Lorentz said it's usually friendly enough, and oftentimes offenders will give up information on other thieves to deflect attention.

"We will go have a chat with them. You let them know you're onto what's going on. Sometimes after having this conversation, the thefts will stop," Lorentz said.

What's fueling auto thefts?

Gangs and organized theft rings focus on stealing Honda Civics and Accords for parts. Lorentz said he's seen a recovered Honda Civic stripped down to the frame. But it's actually drugs that play a role in a majority of auto thefts, and it's keys left in cars that makes it easy.

"Meth is the No. 1 contributor to auto theft," Lorentz said.

A meth addict breaks in and finds a spare key while rooting around for cash and other valuables. "It's amazing how many people leave extra keys or a valet key hidden in the center console," Lorentz said.

Even worse, some drivers leave the vehicle running to warm it up or dash into a store for a quick errand, and the thief simply slips behind the wheel.

"I just don't understand the concept of leaving something so valuable to you with the keys in the ignition. It boggles my mind. But it's done so very often," Gannon said.

In Brooklyn Center, it is a citable offense to leave a vehicle unattended without stopping the engine and removing the keys. Officers taking stolen vehicle reports routinely write citations to victims who have left the keys in the ignition, Lorentz said. Signs are posted at nearly every gas station in the city.

"An officer doesn't want to write a ticket to a victim. They don't want to victimize this person twice. But there has to be consequences for their actions," Lorentz said.

The collateral damage is real, he explained. Recently, thieves stole two cars with their keys in ignitions from a townhouse complex.

The thieves used the vehicles in a spate of burglaries and then led police on a high-speed chase that careened from Minneapolis back to Brooklyn Center.

Taking a closer look at auto thefts has uncovered a few cases of fraud. One Brooklyn Center resident reported his Chevy Equinox stolen on an interstate ramp. Police found the vehicle burned out in a Minneapolis neighborhood. The owner's story didn't add up because anti-theft mechanisms installed by the manufacturer are so sophisticated, it makes the SUV nearly impossible to steal. Police discovered the underlying fraud, Lorentz said.

Despite their decade of success, police, responding to an uptick from 2011 to 2012, are further boosting their efforts. Brooklyn Center has started using license-plate readers to catch thieves behind the wheel. The department does not save the data, Gannon said.

"The reward is we look at our crime stats and we see a downward trend. It really shows our efforts are paying off," Gannon said. "It seems to have real, tangible results."

Shannon Prather is a Twin Cities freelance writer.

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