Newer cars, equipped with high-tech keys and immobilizer systems, are impossible to hot-wire. Police deploy license plate scanners and bait cars, and services such as OnStar give investigators an edge in hunting down stolen cars and the crooks who swipe them. Improved anti-terror laws have made it harder to falsify documents and launder cars, making it less likely a hot car will hit the secondary market disguised as a legitimate one. And police have put resources into dismantling theft rings and chop shops.
That combination of auto industry advances and old-fashioned law enforcement deterrence has sent car theft plummeting across the United States by more than 40 percent since 2003, the last year that saw an increase. The decline far outpaces drops in every other crime category.
Vehicle theft was so rampant in Prince George’s County in 2004 that, on average, there was a car stolen almost every 30 minutes. By last year, the crime had dropped by about 60 percent. In the District and across Maryland, the number of stolen cars has fallen about 50 percent in the past seven years. Virginia car theft, in line with national averages, has declined 42 percent. Fairfax County’s thefts have dropped at the same rate, to 837 last year, less than one-tenth of one percent of the 956,528 registered vehicles there.
According to FBI statistics, crime in most categories has dropped nationwide since 2003 but not nearly as fast as auto theft. Overall violent crime fell 10 percent, homicide dropped 12 percent, and burglary remained essentially the same. To law enforcement experts, that auto theft is dropping nearly four times as fast as other crime makes sense because it always seemed like a puzzle that police and the industry could crack.
“We thought that car theft would be the one kind of crime that lends itself to solving,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Washington-based Police Executive Research Forum. “Finally, technology has caught up to the intuitive vision street cops had a decade ago.”
Quelling the ‘epidemic’
Prince George’s police called car theft in the county an “epidemic” in 2005, and for good reason. The previous year, the county reported 16,332 stolen autos. Rushern L. Baker III (D), who is now the county executive, was a victim several years ago when someone snatched his burgundy Chevrolet Suburban sport-utility vehicle from his driveway in Cheverly.
“Auto theft didn’t creep up on us, it exploded. We became defined by it. Everyone was talking about it,” said Prince George’s Deputy Police Chief Kevin Davis, head of the patrol bureau. “It can and does happen to anyone, regardless of socioeconomic status. We did drastic things to get a hold of it.”