Friday, March 27, 2015

Gangs and Automobile Theft in the U.S.

The Rise of Gangs
            As car theft decreased nationwide, and the occurrence of joy riding waned, this crime took a dark turn. Writing for Police magazine, retired Sgt. Richard Valdemar of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, who spent most his 33 years on the force combating gangs, describes how the seemingly harmless indiscretions of the young Southern California joy riders became the seedbed of an underworld dealing in stolen cars and car parts:

After World War II automobiles became more plentiful in America and an attitude of tolerance for youthful GTA [Grand Theft Auto] suspects became common. The hot rod and low rider were often built from parts stripped from stolen cars. These highly modified vehicles were often neighborhood projects built by groups of several young men and teens. Sometimes these cars were built by gangs. About this time also, gangs began to specialize in Grand Theft Auto.31

            While for the middle-class and affluent youth, the hot rod era was linked to drive-in movies, drive-in diners, and drag races, for those with less discretionary income, souping up their cars revitalized a home industry for stolen parts. Sometimes it was just groups of people comprised of friends, family, and/or neighbors that hooked up, but other times gangs--or individuals with recognizable names and symbols engaging in illegal activities--were involved. In poor areas, the talents and ties of whole communities were fertile ground for engaging in lucrative ventures in stolen cars. Youths were groomed into car theft at an early age, knowing that they would get a lighter sentence. Sgt. Valdemar provides insight into how gangs engaged in auto theft:

GTA is very profitable. Gangs run chop shops double and quadruple their profits derived from stolen rides by selling the vehicles’ parts separately. In addition, thousands of stolen vehicles worth millions of dollars are smuggled into Mexico each year.
Gang members also steal vehicles to use in other crimes. Burglaries, robberies, and drive-by shootings are often preceded by gang members stealing a car. Car customizing shops are also used by gang members to install hidden stash compartments.
Despite all this GTA activity by gangs, felony GTA charges are rarely filed against these gang members. Unless the vehicle theft can be tied to a GTA ring or a chop shop, the gang member will usually be charged with the lesser crime of “joy riding” because the “intent to permanently deprive” the victim of his or her vehicle is difficult to prove.
gang members, especially juveniles, receive little incarceration and lots of probation for car crimes.
I think that after the traditional “jump in,” carjacking for GTA is the most common gang initiation.32

            The literature on gang formation is large and beyond the scope of this research, but there is reason to believe that youths who join gangs are more likely to engage in car theft than those that don’t. For example, when comparing youth gang and non-gang criminal behavior, one study found that 44.7 percent of youth gang members engaged in auto theft as opposed to only 4.1 percent of at-risk youths not in a gang.33 Clearly, not all car thieves belong to gangs, nor do all gang members steal cars, but as anti-theft technology made it harder for the casual joy rider to take a car for the fun of it, auto theft became increasingly concentrated in the hands of more hardened elements, as reflected in arrest data that documents a decline in youth arrests and an increase in adult arrests.


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