It’s been a productive year for car thieves prowling the streets of Minneapolis.
Police say that 1,845 vehicles have been stolen through Tuesday, the last date for which reliable data are available — putting the city on pace to record its highest tally since 2008, when there were 2,439 car thefts. Last week alone, 44 cars were separated from their owners, police data show.
And, as the weather gets colder, burglars in search of vehicles to “flip” on the secondhand market or strip for parts are finding easy pickings with so many people leaving theirs idling and unattended, police say.
Consider two recent cases:
About 5 p.m. on Dec. 10, Robelo Lopez joined the growing number of fuming car owners when someone stole the brown 2011 Mitsubishi Endeavor that he relied on to get to one of the many part-time jobs he works. That day, temperatures had dipped into the low teens. Lopez said last week that he left the car running to warm up for a quick trip to the grocery store. He swears the car wasn’t out of his sight for more than a few minutes. But when he went back outside, it had vanished.
Annette Mobley wasn’t gone even that long when her SUV was taken. About 7:30 p.m. the same day, a thief crept past her house in the 3100 block of E. 38th Street and jumped into the charcoal gray 2003 Chevrolet Suburban parked out back. The engine was turned on and the doors unlocked. Mobley had gone inside to use the bathroom.
“I wasn’t even gone two or three minutes, and came back and it was gone,” she said last week.
As was the case in nearly every auto theft this year, no arrests have been made. And so far neither vehicle has been recovered.
The incidents were among the 1,845 auto thefts recorded in the city, according to the latest police statistics, a roughly 13 percent increase over the 1,633 committed by this time last year. After the 2,439 recorded in 2008, the number of car thefts began to decline steadily.
Saturday’s incidents were typical, police say. Cars left unattended with their engines running make tempting targets for would-be thieves, said Minneapolis police officer Wayne Johnson, who has worked in the department’s Motor Vehicle Theft Program since the unit was formed in 1998.
Despite a city ordinance outlawing the practice, many motorists still leave their vehicles running when the weather turns cold, Johnson said. Last year, according to departmental data, more cars were stolen during the cold months of December through February (511) than in any other season.
Unlike on the East and West coasts, where stolen cars fetch higher black-market prices, Johnson said that many local thefts are a matter of practicality: opportunistic thieves looking for a ride “to get from point A to point B.”
He recalled one case several years back in which a man was pulled over in a stolen vehicle in downtown Minneapolis while driving to a court date for an unrelated offense. “He said he missed the bus,” Johnson said.
Hard to put the brakes on
Auto thefts in some neighborhoods are up sharply.
Through the first 11 months of the year, the Midtown Phillips neighborhood had already recorded 54 thefts, compared to the five-year average of 33 at the end of January. Central and Cedar-Riverside also registered major increases, while neighborhoods such as Willard-Hay and Whittier are on pace to have fewer cars stolen than in past years.
The number of these crimes has decreased since auto manufacturers started installing computer chips in cars.
If the pattern holds, it is unlikely that Saturday’s thefts will result in any arrests.
During the past several years, arrests are made in fewer than one in 10 Minneapolis car thefts, police officials say. Police have made 201 arrests so far this year for auto theft, 19 percent more than in the same period last year.
Fewer cases still are successfully prosecuted.
Still, not every case goes unsolved.
On Friday, St. Paul police tweeted that since the beginning of the month, 33 idling vehicles had been stolen from their unsuspecting owners.
In one case, a car taken from the Dayton’s Bluff neighborhood was later found parked outside the ticketing and drop-off section of the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, authorities said. A woman who was captured on airport surveillance video “running” from the car to a boarding gate inside was arrested inside security, police said.
In another theft, a 14-year-old girl was pulled over near Logan Avenue N. and Oak Park Avenue in Minneapolis after taking a joy ride in a stolen vehicle, police said. The girl, whose name was withheld, was booked into Hennepin County Juvenile Detention Center on suspicion of auto theft. The vehicle was towed to the city’s impound lot and eventually reunited with its owner.
It’s unclear whether the girl was charged with a crime.
Auto theft isn’t as much of a problem in Minnesota as it is in Western states like California, where “it’s easier to get the stolen vehicles out to the coasts and into shipping containers,” said Mark Kulda, a spokesman for the Insurance Association of Minnesota, a trade group.
Today’s thefts are mostly crimes of opportunity, police say. In many cases, the cars’ owners take their eyes off their idling vehicles or leave the keys in the ignition or in an obvious hiding location such as the glove compartment, authorities say.
That makes auto theft more difficult to solve than other crimes. Nationally, 13 percent of motor vehicle thefts are solved. In comparison, the clearance rate is 20 percent for arson and 19 percent for all property crimes, according to data from the National Insurance Crime Bureau.
Technology has helped
In 2015, the Twin Cities ranked 145th among metropolitan areas nationwide in the bureau’s annual report, with a rate of 187.48 stolen cars per capita.
Gone are the days, police say, when roving gang members and organized theft rings would pry open car doors with nothing more high-tech than a screwdriver, hot-wire the ignition and drive to a junk yard or auto body shop, where it would be stripped down to the frame for parts.
Thanks to improving technology, stealing cars has gotten less lucrative, police say. In recent years, automobile manufacturers have made major improvements to thwart all but the most technologically savvy thieves, installing anti-theft technology like GPS, kill switches and “engine immobilizer systems,” adopted in the late ’90s and early 2000s, which made it virtually impossible to start a car without the ignition key.
Like other metro departments, Minneapolis police have received state funding for anti-theft technology like license plate readers, a controversial crime-fighting tool that can automatically scan thousands of vehicles a minute and check it against databases of stolen vehicles. The department also deploys dozens of so-called bait cars in areas “based on crime analysis.” The vehicles are laden with GPS tracking systems, sound and video recorders and a silent alarm that are triggered when the vehicle is taken.