Monday, March 23, 2015

Statistics Associated with Automobile Theft in the U.S., Post-WWII

Stolen Cars and Statistics
            As the decade of the 1980s opened, New York Times writer Charles Klaveness remarked that “My car used to be a 1974 Ford Bronco, but now it’s a statistic. Last year, 110,881 motor vehicles were reported stolen in New York State, according to state and federal crime reports. No figure is available on what it cost insurance companies to settle resulting claims, but it was more than ever before--the National Automobile Theft Bureau says the average value of a stolen vehicle has gone up 60 percent in the last five years, and it wasn't going down before.”17
            Initially, the surge in auto theft in the late 1970s and early 1980s was blamed on juveniles. And while recovery rate statistics certainly suggest that youthful offenders were often responsible for the act of auto theft, by 1984 a perceptible transition had occurred in which organized thieves emerged as the focus of law enforcement efforts. On the local level, this shift was reflected in the rhetoric of New Jersey State Senator Donald T. DiFrancesco, a champion of anti-auto theft legislation. In November 1980, DiFrancesco, representing a constituency that was becoming increasingly impatient with the curtailing of neighborhood crime, argued that youthful perpetrators be treated with more “maturity.” In an Op-Ed essay published in the New York Times, DiFrancesco asserted that “In 1978, persons under the age of 18 accounted for 60 percent of all arrests for breaking and entering, automobile theft and arson, and for 40 percent of all arrests for robbery. . . . Juvenile violence and criminality are no longer a rising tide; it is a terrifying and destructive wave that, if not checked, will engulf urban, suburban and rural New Jersey.  18 Two years later, DiFrancesco introduced legislation “to give the police and prosecutors additional tools in catching professional car thieves and sending them to jail. These tools include improved cooperation between law enforcement officials and insurance companies by making the companies immune from prosecution by providing the police with information about auto theft claims.”19 A final measure in DiFrancesco’s legislative package was designed “to prevent auto-theft cases from being thrown out of court because the owner of the car fails to attend the trial. It would permit a certificate of title to be entered into court as proof of ownership, sparing the victim from being required to testify.” The shift in DiFrancesco’s legislative efforts reflects a subtle but important shift in perceptions about auto theft. After 1980, law enforcement, the insurance industry, and inventors of anti-theft devices clearly targeted organized crime. Minors were still an important part of the story, however, as they often worked as low-level operatives within complex hierarchical organizations.
            Despite dire reports of the 1980s and 1990s, when it comes to auto theft in America, this period can ultimately be characterized as one where technology and organization, harnessed together, effectively put the brakes on stealing cars in America. That is not to say that the problem was solved by any means, or that a major cultural shift has taken place with regard to the casual nature of the act, since in 2010 a car was stolen every 43 seconds. However, every statistical and quantitative indicator reflects a victory of sorts in the war against this crime, the consequence of the introduction of sophisticated electronic technology coupled with intelligent policing. Yet the story is far from over, as the same technology that has played such a large role in shutting down the joy rider, or a slight variant, can also be used by a new type of thief, akin psychologically to a computer hacker. And indeed, computer gaming has culturally reinforced a lawless, anti-authoritarian value system that is adhered to by many living on the margins of American life (See chapter 6 for additional details).
            In 1986 there were 1,224,127 motor vehicle thefts in the US. A decade later, that number had peaked at 1,395,192. Yet, in 2010, the total had dropped precipitously to 737,142, or 39.8 percent less than 1986 and 47.2 percent less than 1996.20 Similar trends can be extended, with few exceptions, from national aggregate data to states and cities. For example, in Los Angeles total motor vehicle thefts dropped from 57,331 in 1988 to 18,391 in 2009.21 These lower numbers have been coupled with higher recovery rates, painting an even rosier picture concerning the recent past. Of course, hot spots--states, cities, and neighborhoods--are still a major concern for law enforcement officials, and the fact that there is spatial movement at the local level means that the crime continues to confound police, the insurance industry, and car owners. The fact that statistics indicate a lessening threat across the nation is of little consolation to those living in the following geographical areas discussed in sections A and B that are labeled as the worst for car theft in America:
            A. States--As might be expected, the State of California reported the greatest number of auto thefts in 2010 followed by states that border Canada or Mexico or face the vast European, Asian, and Latin American markets. So important is California that the number of auto thefts there is more than double that of the next state, Texas, and even greater than the next three states combined (Texas, Florida, and Georgia). Conspicuously absent from this list are states with few large urban centers,primary agricultural economies, and possessing lower population densities.

            B. National Urban Landscape--One indicator of change lay in the metropolitan statistical areas (MSA) with the greatest number of auto thefts reported in the decade from 2000 to 2010. Table 4-2 shows the rankings in 2000.

            By 2010, the Los Angeles MSA had, by far, become the auto theft capital of the US followed by Chicago, New York, Houston, San Francisco, Dallas, Detroit, Atlanta, Miami, Seattle, Riverside, Washington D.C., San Diego, Phoenix and Philadelphia (see Table 4-3).23 The critical characteristics of these cities are their large pool of autos, proximity to the Interstate System, access to a significant homeland or international market that can be reached by land or sea, and the existence of a sophisticated network of people involved in auto theft.

            The rate of auto theft measured as the number of cars stolen per 100,000 persons showed yet another development. In 2000, the top three cities with the highest rates were large centers--Phoenix, Miami, and Detroit where the number of thefts was also significant.

            But surprisingly, just one decade later, in 2010, the largest cities, including Los Angeles, Chicago and New York, did not make the list. Rather, smaller cities such as Fresno, CA (1), Modesto, CA (2), and Bakersfield-Delano (3) outranked the major centers.

            Although the dramatic change in ranking can be attributed to changes in the size of the base versus the number of thefts (e.g. the Los Angeles MSA was redefined to incorporate a larger area), yet another interpretation suggests the growth of a vibrant shadow economy involving these smaller communities:

The common thread among U.S. cities with the highest car theft rates (in 2010) is that many of these areas are actually border cities and towns that have become a pipeline for car thieves smuggling everything from weapons and money to drugs through Mexico. Simply put, stolen vehicles in most border towns are used to commit other crimes. Yakima, Washington . . . cites rampant criminal activity such as drug dealing and heavy gang activity as the cause of most car thefts. Yakima also happens to sit on a main road that runs between Canada and Mexico.27

            Within major metropolitan areas such Los Angeles, small cities and communities with large immigrant populations known on the street as go-to places for forged green cards also feed into the documents market for stolen cars. Sargeant Richard Valdemar describes it accordingly based on his experience in Los Angeles County:

A new problem has arisen in small cities with a large Hispanic and large illegal population like Bell, Bell Gardens, and Hawaiian Gardens. They’ve become centers for false documents. They make false driver licenses, social security cards, and immigration documents (green cards) for human trafficking. Their insurance papers and car registrations are super good. In part, it’s due to a corrupted DMV. 


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