Monday, December 29, 2014

Fighting Back: Police Countermeasures to Automobile Theft, 1919-1941

One countermeasure involved cleaning up urban slums during the 1930s with feudally funding housing.
One of the first countermeasures to auto theft involved the mailing of information cards. Note the significance of the insurance industry in coordinating early efforts to track down stolen cards.

A NICB file card from 1944.

Fighting Back
            To control rampant automobile crimes, authorities developed scientific means to fight back. As early as 1919, a system of fingerprints to identify automobile owners was proposed. [1] The Federal Bureau of Investigation constructed a vast (for the day) fingerprint database called the National Division of Identification and Information in 1924.[2] Starting with over 800,000 fingerprint records, the database grew to more than 2 million by the end of the 1920s.  With fingerprints filed, classified, and categorized, the next step taken was in the compilation of crime statistics. In 1930 a system of uniform crime reporting began. Of the offenses that were included in what became the monthly Uniform Crime Reports (UCR) was auto theft.  Consequently, what resulted was a comprehensive but imperfect picture of the amount and types of crime committed in towns and cities across the country.  Other measures followed.
            Stolen cars was central to FBI activities well beyond tracking down the common car thief.  For example, when John Dillinger broke out of the Crown Point, Indiana jail, it was his theft of a car and crossing of a state line that brought agent Melvin Purvis into the Dillinger hunt.  And a stolen car matter was often the first case in which a new FBI agent cut his teeth.  Purvis, who began his career with the FBI in Dallas, later recalled in his memoir American Agent how by glancing at phone numbers scribbled on a restaurant wall and with some luck and cunning, he tracked down his first criminal, an elusive auto thief.  It was an episode that augured well for his future as a G-Man.[3]
            Quite different than Purvis' examining the writing on a wall, between 1920 and 1941 police developed increasingly sophisticated means to monitor a more mobile public.  Routine  methods employed in Buffalo, NY, during the mid-1920s included the use of police radio, as well as daily and weekly "hot sheets."[4]  In a similar fashion, Los Angeles police department officers began their shift with a list of stolen automobiles printed the night before.  In 1927, a Toledo, Ohio, officer suggested to his superior a system that was remarkably close to what was ultimately adopted by the Auto Theft Committee of the International Association of Chiefs of Police:
1. Get full report and Description of auto stole. As to date and time when auto was reported stolen. Get correct Motor and serial numbers. And license numbers.
2. After the auto has been out for a period of 48 hours, have Insurance Company put the alarm card out,
3- If not insured, have the owner of the auto order through the Police Dept. where auto was stolen from get out about 250 cars. These to be sent to all Dept. that keep a stolen auto file on autos.
4- These alarm cards should be of regulation size, size 3x5. The card for mailing card be a large card, but should be printed so they can be cut to 3x5. And the Motor number should be in the upper right hand corner. Where it can be seen at once. This will help to speed up the filing and checking of autos. And the name of the make of the auto should be close to the top of the card.
5. The officers should check more autos that they see around town, mostly the autos that have out of town license plates they should check these parties to their bill of sales, or the license slips that they are given by the state.
6- Another way to check stolen autos would be to lift the hoods of autos parked on the streets at night, also could be done during the day, mostly around the larger factories. We located some autos by this method and have apprehended some good autos thieves.  Men that have made a business of selling autos with changed Motor numbers, to some men that they are working with.
7- Every bill of sale and Title form from another State, should be checked to see if the Party filing this auto in the State, has the right auto in his Possession.  It is very easy nowadays to buy a junk auto, and get the title and then steal another auto, and go to some other State and Register this auto.  We have been doing this for one year now, and find it is quite a success.
8- Another way to check on stolen autos is that when a party applies for License plates, to have these autos checked by police department and see that everyone gets a license number must have the auto in his or her. With Proper papers.  I understand they are doing this at  Los Angeles Cal and they have quite a success in get back stolen autos.
8- Every Police Dept. should send out a list of every auto that has been recovered. About once a month. As to keep the files clean of autos that have been recovered.[5]
            Additionally, police developed processes using chemicals and torches to identify fake serial numbers.[6] These destructive forensic techniques enabled investigators to recover filed or ground down motor numbers that were seemingly hidden to the naked eye. Typically the stamping process involved striking a cast iron motor block with a die that deformed the metal, leaving an impression. Physically two zones of deformation resulted, one called the plastic, and another deeper area, the elastic. Even if the number was totally removed from the plastic layer, it still existed in the elastic, and techniques were developed to bring those digits visible again. One popular destructive technique used etching solutions, most commonly Fry's Reagent ( 90 grams of copper chloride, 120 ml of Hydrochloric Acid, and 100 ml of water), that when swabbed on the surface of the damaged meal revealed the erased numbers under reflected light. On a horizontal surface like an engine block a frame of modeling clay was made around the area in question and the etching solution was poured of two to five mm).  A heat treatment method was also quite successful in recovering filed off numbers on cast iron substrates. Using a propane torch, a technician heated the metal to cherry red, which caused the deformed area to bulge above its surroundings.  Marks were thus pushed up, and after cleaning, the numbers stood out in contrast to darker surroundings.
             These developments were subsequently supplemented by enhanced communication technology.   In 1936, it was urged that “every city join the nation-wide network of inter-city radio-telegraph service provided for by the Federal Communications Commission.”[7] “Chattering teletype machines and short-wave radio messages outdistance the fleetest car, while police encircle a fleeing criminal in an effort to make escape impossible.” [8] Without doubt, radio communication made auto theft difficult, but for some thieves strategies to overcome police radios, including using radios themselves, would soon follow. By 1934, according to one overly optimistic and na├»ve journalist, “auto thieves found their racket a losing one.”[9] In response to mobile crime, governments at all levels grew more sophisticated. Insurance companies responded in kind: “In Chicago, a central salvage bureau, maintained by insurance companies is being established in an effort to wipe out a $10,000,000-a-year racket in stolen parts.”[10] Automobile manufacturers invested in a “pick-proof” lock.[11] From 1933-1936 insurance companies and the government decimated the market for stolen automobiles and stolen parts. In 1934 Popular Science Monthly reported that: “figures compiled by the National Automobile Underwriters Association show that eighty-six percent of the cars stolen in 1930 were recovered while in 1931 eighty-two percent were recovered and eighty-nine percent in 1932.”[12]
            Indeed, urban theft rates experienced a sustained decline throughout the 1930s, suggesting that organization, technology, and perhaps depressed economic conditions were contributing to what amounted to good news. [13]  Along with the end of Prohibition, this optimistic turn was possibly the reason why depictions of stealing cars in Hollywood film prior to World War II tended to play incidental roles in comic or farcical situations.  In films including New Adventures of Get Rich Quick Wallingford (1931), It Happened one Night (1934), Social Error (1935), and Bringing up Baby (1938), the serious side of automobile theft, more characteristic of the tone of the 1920s, was dismissed.
Auto Theft, Offenses known to police, cities over 25,000 in population

             Yet, the confidence exuded by government crime experts during the 1930s was short-lived.  In sum, to 1941 the combination of technology and organization could abate, but stop arrest the theft of a thing Americans had learned to love. The problem of auto theft in the U.S. resurfaced after World War II with a vengeance. For a time it was an issue centering on youth, first those from the middle class and then from minorities.  Later, professional criminals were a target of law enforcement, but in a cultural climate that increasingly portrayed the auto thief as a hero. After all, the automobile in America was the ultimate freedom machine, and driving proved as exhilarating and liberating for thieves as well for owners.   

[1] “Let the Auto Thief Beware.” Illustrated World, (August 1919), 858. 
[2] J. Edgar Hoover, "The National Division of Identification and Information," The American Journal of Police Science, 2 (May-June, 1931), 241-51.
[3] Melvin Purvis, American Agent (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1936), pp. 27-8.
[4] On radio, including both police radio and public programming, see Kathleen Battles, Calling all Cars: Radio Dragnets and the Technology of Policing (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010), especially pp. 157-176.
[5] Letter, off. Hartung to H. Jennings, n.d. [November, 1927?},University of Toledo, Records, 1899-1937,Toledo (Ohio). Police Dept.,Stolen Auto Record,MSS - 162,File, Correspondence to C. of P. Harry Jennings, 1924-27; James W. Higgins, chief of police, Buffalo, Chairman, "Auto Theft Committee" Int. Ass'n of Chiefs of Police to Harry Jennings, November 4, 1927.
[6] Horst Katterwe, "Restoration of Serial Numbers," in Eric Stauffer and Monica S. Bonfanti, Forensic Investigation of Stolen-Recovered and other Crime-Related Vehicles (Amsterdam: Elsevier, 2006), pp.177-194.
[7]“Catching Auto Thieves,” The American City, (October 1936), 15. 
[8] Sterling Gleason, “Auto-Stealing Racket Smashed by New Methods.” Popular Science Monthly, (August 1934), 13.
[9] Ibid, p.12.
[10] Ibid, p.13.
[11]“Science Fights Crime With New Inventions.” Science News Letter, (March 16, 1935), 164.
[12] Sterling Gleason, “Auto-Stealing Racket Smashed by New Methods,” p.13.
[13]  Federal Bureau of Investigation, Uniform Crime Reports, 16, No. 1 (Washington, D.C.: G.P.O.,1945), p.12.

For more on this topic, see my recently published book on the history of auto theft.


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