Many reasons for auto theft decline, local authorities say

By J. PATRICK PEPPER
Times-Herald Newspapers

One of the bright spots in 2009 crime data released by the FBI earlier this month was the steep drop-off in automobile thefts reported nationally — and here locally, where the change was even bigger.

The total number of cars stolen across the country declined nearly 18 percent last year compared to 2008, continuing a decade-long decline. While reported crime in the United States has fallen in general since 2000, the drop in car thefts has been relatively staggering.

During the last decade, car thefts have fallen more than 37 percent. It is the greatest drop-off over that period among eight offense categories tracked by the FBI, with the next closest category, aggravated assault, falling only about 19 percent.

The phenomenon was amplified in the greater Dearborn-Dearborn Heights area, 2009 statistics show. Compared to 2008, there was a 22 percent drop in auto thefts in Dearborn Heights and a 30 percent drop in Dearborn. Local law enforcement officials were pleased with the numbers and said the trend likely was due to several factors.

“That’s something you like to see, and I think it shows we’ve been successful in kind of getting a handle on it (as law enforcement is concerned), but really there are a lot of things that play into it,” said Dearborn Heights Police Chief Lee Gavin.

Some of the reasons are fairly certain. Car manufacturers have increased security measures on newer vehicles, with many models now virtually hotwire-proof via a microchip-embedded key required for ignition. And if a crook does manage to jack a ride, vehicle-tracking capabilities have made law enforcement’s job a whole lot easier and more efficient.

“With the prevalence of GPS tracking and the products like OnStar, we really have a tool that is just kind of recent addition for (law enforcement),” said Dearborn Police Chief Ronald Haddad.

Other likely factors in the decline are increased public awareness campaigns on how to avoid car theft and more community policing initiatives, both chiefs said.

But some of the other potential causes cited by local authorities were more nuanced. Mentioned by Gavin and Haddad was the ongoing population loss in southeast Michigan, which has meant fewer people on the roads.

“Criminals act on opportunity, so … it’s a numbers game,” Haddad said.

Another possible factor is the economy. Though many law enforcement officials correlate increased crime rates with a bad economy (there is some debate on the issue, however), local officials said that in this case, it actually could be causing car thefts to drop.

“Money’s tight, so people aren’t taking care of their cars as much as they were in the past,” Gavin said. “If the cars aren’t maintained as well, the parts aren’t worth as much for a thief to steal, making it a less attractive target.”

High unemployment also could be playing a part, as fewer people are driving to work or out shopping. Such destinations, with large parking lots, are prime striking locations for car thieves, officials said.

But even with the encouraging trend, there was one thing both chiefs made clear: Crime isn’t dead.

“These people don’t just stop committing crimes,” Gavin said, “they move onto something else or they go to jail. We need to keep putting them in jail.”