Car Theft: Auto Theft Task Forces & Potential Solutions (Part 3)

Part 3 of a 3 part article by DJ Thompson -

During the 1990s, as carjacking and other types of auto theft became a focus of law enforcement efforts, task forces were formed in several areas of the country to combat the problem and were significantly effective in reducing crime.

In New Jersey, the Assembly Task Force on Auto Theft was created in October 1992, to study auto theft in the state and report back to the New Jersey Legislature with recommendations. The New Jersey State Police reports that car thefts dropped from 63,533 in 1992 to 35,158 in 1999.   

The Illinois Motor Vehicle Theft Prevention Council (MVTPC), also founded in 1991, is an 11-member collaboration between insurance, state’s attorneys, and law enforcement tasked with reducing auto theft, insurance fraud, and other motor vehicle theft-related crimes in Illinois. Between its inception and 2014 the MVTPC reduced vehicle theft in Illinois by 77%, recovered 41,217 stolen vehicles, and saved $342 million, as stated on its website  

The Texas Auto Burglary and Theft Prevention Authority (TABTA) was established by the 72nd Texas Legislature in 1991 to assess automobile burglary, theft, and economic theft in Texas, make recommendations, and provide financial support to combat the problems. According to the TABTPA and the Texas Department of Public Safety’s Uniform Crime Reporting, Crime Information Bureau, from 1991 to 2009, the auto theft rate in Texas dropped from 163,837 to 76,617.

The Arizona Automobile Theft Authority (AATA), established in 1992 by the Arizona State Legislature and funded by semi-annual assessments on insurance companies, reduced auto theft 57% by 2016. During that year, the Auto Theft Task Force had recovered 1,561 stolen vehicles, made 369 felony arrests, and provided 2,084 assists to other law enforcement agencies.

Over the next decade and more, other areas of the country continued to establish task forces with similar results.

The Colorado Auto Theft Prevention Authority (CATPA) was established under the DPS by statute in 2003. In the first ten years, they reported that auto theft decreased by more than half, from 22,699 in 2003 to 11,304 in 2013. CATPA performs complex case investigations and shares intelligence among law enforcement investigators with a centralized CJIS-compliant auto theft database. CATPA funding allows agencies to provide training to personnel and educate the public, and to purchase equipment such as license plate readers and bait cars. As stated on its website, the measured result of the awarded funds amounted to a return of $1.47 for every CATPA dollar invested, including the recovery of 5,168 stolen vehicles valued at $38,264,677.

In 2005, Washington State was ranked in the top five nationally for auto theft, which had increased 55% over the previous decade. Two cities in the state were ranked in the top ten metropolitan areas in the US. In 2005, a car was stolen in Washington every 11 minutes, adding up to nearly 50,000 cars stolen during the year, according to the Washington Auto Theft Prevention Authority (WATPA) website. The Elizabeth Nowak-Washington Auto Theft Prevention Act was signed into law in 2007, creating the WATPA within the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs (WASPC). Their 2013 Annual Report claimed that in the first 5 years, auto theft dropped by more than half, to 21,426 thefts.  

Task forces bring more reach and mobility to law enforcement. Thieves do not respect jurisdictional boundaries, so being able to cross jurisdictions in investigations is very important for breaking up crime rings. As Frank Zangar, LoJack Senior Law Enforcement Liaison says, “Auto theft is regional, not local.”

Task forces also bring an economy of scale. Because several departments or agencies are combining assets, the task force has access to specialized equipment a local jurisdiction might be unable to afford, such as bait cars. With dedicated personnel, it is possible to perform more sophisticated crime analysis and more surveillance. Dedicated people also do not get pulled off auto theft cases to work on something else.

When cars are equipped with tracking or stolen vehicle recovery systems such as the LoJack System, law enforcement officers and auto theft task forces have additional tools for breaking up theft rings. When a vehicle is located, law enforcement can choose to intervene immediately or wait, using surveillance and search warrants to gather more evidence and uncover additional suspects. In many cases other stolen vehicles are recovered near the LoJack equipped car. Don Cavallo, a former Sergeant with the Passaic County Sheriff’s Department, Auto Theft Task Force and National Insurance Crime Bureau Special Agent, recalls one such investigation, which dismantled a large auto theft organization. During a period of three months, New Jersey State Police managed an investigation that led to 31 arrests and the recovery of 179 stolen motor vehicles valued in excess of $10 million.

Funding Woes Hamper Task Forces

Despite their success, task forces have been hampered by budget cuts over the last several years.

In Arizona, the AATA is trying to make up for program cuts that have left the agency underfunded for the last three years, resulting in a reduction of police officer and prosecutor positions and a lack of funds for grantees in other program areas. In the last fiscal year alone, according to the AATA’s Five-Year Strategic Plan (FY19-FY24), four detective positions were cut from the DPS Auto Theft Task Force and support staff positions for several county attorneys were severely reduced; there is no money for new technology, crime-fighting equipment, training, or needed upgrades to agency databases like Watch Your Car.

The MVTPC in Illinois, which is funded by a one-dollar assessment on every auto insurance policy, is in a similar budget stalemate. An executive order from Governor Bruce Rauner in 2015 froze that pool of money, cutting off the supply of funds for tasks forces in the state.  Almost immediately, local departments pulled task force personnel. The task forces continue to operate in name but the MVTPC is unable to fund any grants. The money is still coming in from the insurance assessment but cannot be allocated for its designated purpose.

In Texas, the story is much the same. A one-dollar insurance assessment became a two-dollar assessment, and yet the funds are being diverted to the general fund, where only pennies on the dollar get appropriated for task force uses. Between 2012 and 2016, the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles reported that out of $213 million collected from these insurance policies, nearly $139 million were diverted to the General Revenue fund, leaving a little over a third of the money for use by task forces.  

Bill Skinner, former Dallas Police Detective and former president of the South Central Chapter of IAATI, says that there used to be enough task force personnel to do a check twice a year of vehicles crossing the US border into Texas. Since the funding has been cut, they don’t have the manpower to do that. “Everyone’s undermanned,” he says. “Everyone’s swamped.”

“Auto theft investigation is an art,” adds Phil Cappitelli, former Supervising Sergeant of the Chicago Police Department Auto Theft Unit. “You have to have knowledge, work on it, do surveillance, put a tracker on it.” A case in point involved a 2008 Trailblazer LL stolen on a dealer demonstration in Minnesota. “A woman who lived in Madison, Wisc. bought the car in Minnesota from the thief. When she sold it to someone in Chicago and delivered it, the stolen vehicle started talking to the local LoJack towers. When I got to the scene, the officers there were suspicious because the federal door tag was removed and the VIN was cut off from the tire label, but they were hesitant to take the car from the new owner as he had already registered it to Illinois’s Secretary of State with the fake VIN and had Illinois plates and registration.” Cappitelli showed them how running the true VIN traced back to a different car, a 2006 Trailblazer SS with over 200,000 miles on it. Plugging in to the OBD port showed the true VIN number of the car and NICB was able to find the true VIN in an alternate location.

Skinner agrees that auto theft investigation requires sophisticated strategies and tactics. “I used to work with the Task Force out of Dallas. We’d set up a shop where thieves would bring stolen vehicles, work it for a month, and build up cases to arrest them.” But with the funding cuts, he says, “It’s difficult to do that now.”

“We used to have seven task forces: four in the Chicagoland area and 3 downstate,” says Cappitelli, who was on the Illinois Motor Vehicle Theft Prevention Council Budget Review Board for 4 years. “Since they swept the task force money into the general fund, the task forces are toothless. Our patrolmen don’t have the info they need.”

In New Jersey, the story is the same, with task forces being reduced or eliminated. In response, agencies throughout New Jersey have created an informal network of around 400 personnel statewide who share information over email and social media. When an officer gets a notification that a vehicle has been stolen, he texts the leader of this informal task force who then broadcasts information to widen the search. This type of information sharing can help larger cases by building evidence for patterns and trends.

Still, as Cavallo points out, the New Jersey State Police Department is down to only one task force in the northern part of the state, when in the past each county prosecutor had a task force.

In Washington, the legislature has taken money out of funds that were supposed to be dedicated to task forces. This has forced law enforcement to be more judicious with resources. According to Zangar, “They’re careful about special projects, late-night surveillances, and things that require overtime.”

Potential Solutions

In the face of budget freezes and shortfalls, grassroots information sharing is a survival tactic that is spreading in a few areas around the country. Similar to New Jersey, Arizona has set up a text-messaging group to share information. When Automobile Theft Authority personnel are spread too thin, they work with the street crimes divisions to set up surveillance and other operations.

Chicago just joined a task force formed by the FBI and ATF with the Illinois State Police in the hopes of being able to charge some offenders federally, which would go a long way toward getting them off the streets. “This is the first task force in the city for a long time,” says Cappitelli. The Chicago Police Department is also cracking down on carjackings this year.

Cooperation and awareness are important, but the bottom line is the necessity of funding for technology and dedicated personnel. Cavallo suggests that people need to be assigned full-time to auto theft. Adding that, “you don’t expect a narcotics detective to stop what he’s doing and investigate a burglary. Auto theft is the same.”

Due to the length of the budget cycle, it is important to plan now for money needed in a year or two, and to get that message out to legislators and law enforcement leadership as soon as possible. Money needs to be made available for equipment, information sharing, personnel, and training such as auto theft seminars, which have become rare due to lack of funds.

In the meantime, tougher laws are needed to make it easier to prosecute auto theft. When a juvenile can steal a car and get released before the owner gets the car back, something needs to change.

Increasing our sharing of these ideas and others can help police chiefs across the country better serve in their own communities and states. LoJack is a longtime sponsor of IAATI and believes that regional IAATI shows help promote sharing of techniques, issues and solutions to help improve local policing.

Work with lawmakers in your state to safeguard your community. Pockets of theft are occurring because of voids in laws or judicial actions that reduce prosecution of known thieves. Making your local legislators aware of these issues is the best way to regain needed resources to improve community education, coordinated investigative efforts, and the sharing of vital information. Police chiefs need to make sure to participate in forums with law makers to preserve key areas of the law that are required to protect communities from runaway crimes.

Read the remainder of this 3-part Car Theft series through the following links:

Car Theft: National Auto Theft Trends (part 1) 

Car Theft: Regional Auto Theft Trends (part 2)