Auburn police target car thefts

It is no secret that auto theft, although down in the Seattle metro area since 2005, remains a major property crime in the state, especially in King and North Pierce counties.

City joins large task force to attack problem

It is no secret that auto theft, although down in the Seattle metro area since 2005, remains a major property crime in the state, especially in King and North Pierce counties.

Recently the Auburn Police Department joined a group of 17 police agencies – including the King County Sheriff’s Office – that pooled their resources and applied to the recently-formed Washington Auto Theft Prevention Authority for grant money to fight this scourge.

The WATPA awarded the agencies $1,030,000 to support and launch a future patrol task force to fight auto theft in both counties. Future task force members met for the first time Wednesday to begin forming this group.

“We are looking to make an impact on auto thefts,” Auburn Police Chief Jim Kelly recently told members of the city’s Municipal Services Committee.

A major portion of the grant funding will pay for staffing but it includes $30,000 for an automatic license plate reader. When installed on a patrol car, the reader will travel throughout all task force cities including Auburn, reading license plates.

Four different cameras are mounted on a car in different directions, and while the car is in motion the system scans and reads hundreds of license plates in an hour.

It then compares the numbers to a data system that is downloaded each day into a computer set up to look for stolen cars. When a match is made, the computer sends a query to the Department of Licensing to confirm the status of the plate and notifies the officer driving the vehicle that it has matched a possible stolen plate. All of this takes place even before a traffic stop is made.

“We’ll probably focus on the malls and casinos and areas where there are large parking areas,” Kelly said.

Kelly said the city expects to have its own plate reader one day, but for now it will be shared on a schedule as yet to be determined.

The task force will include a prosecutor, a crime analyst and a latent fingerprint examiner.

All of this comes at a time of decline in the number of local car thefts, so steep that the Seattle metro area is no longer on the top-10 list nationwide for the highest number of car thefts. The area had been ranked sixth in the nation per capita for car thefts, but a 2007 study shows that the region has dropped to 16th.

Prosecutors credit the decline to the work of local law enforcement and the King County Prosecutor’s Car Theft Unit, which was formed in 2005 in an effort to crack down on the skyrocketing number of car thefts in King County.

King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg said in April during an appearance at the Auburn Rotary Club that the region had experienced a 55-percent decrease in car thefts since 2005. The office files cases on a rush basis and prosecutors are seeking longer sentences.

“It is our goal to see the Seattle area drop out of the top 25. We are no longer a hospitable place to car thieves,” Satterberg said.

Satterberg said that local police agencies have done an excellent job of reducing car thefts. New investigative tools are being used such as bait cars with video cameras. Several local police agencies also have developed special enforcement teams that are locating and arresting repeat car thieves.

Special enforcement teams have been established at the police departments for Seattle, Bellevue, Kirkland, Redmond, Kent, and Renton.

The estimated annual savings for insurance costs as a result of the drop in car thefts is over $50 million in King County alone.