Less than 10 years ago, the Valley led the nation in auto thefts. Last year, metropolitan Phoenix ranked 60th among 366 metro areas in car thefts, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau.
Local police credit the dramatic decrease to creation by the state Legislature of the Arizona Automobile Theft Authority, which trains a task force of police officers, funds prosecutors who specialize in auto-theft cases and provides bait cars that lure would-be thieves. The goal of the authority is to increase arrests and bolster criminal cases against perpetrators.
Across the Valley last year, 13,132 vehicles, or about 308 cars per 100,000 residents, were stolen. In 2002, 1,089 cars per 100,000 residents were stolen, said Frank Scafidi, spokesman for the national crime bureau.
In addition to the work done by the authority, anti-theft devices such as smart keys and LoJack, which helps authorities track stolen cars, have helped deter criminals.
While the drop is significant, officials say there is still work to be done.
Glendale led the Valley’s 10 largest municipalities in auto thefts on a per capita basis in 2011, according to crime data submitted by police departments. Phoenix, the Valley’s largest city in terms of population and geography, ranked second, followed by Tempe, Avondale and Mesa. Surprise was ninth, and Gilbert was last on the list at No. 10.
While most of the municipalities reflect the decadelong downward trend in thefts, two cities — Surprise and Glendale — saw thefts and attempted thefts increase marginally from 2010 to 2011.
J.D. Hough, a special investigator with the authority, said one common thread among top-ranking cities is they all have major shopping centers with easy freeway access.
Glendale in the northwest Valley has Arrowhead Towne Center with Loop 101 seconds away. Tempe in the East Valley has Arizona Mills mall at the confluence of the U.S. 60 and Interstate 10 freeways, as well as Tempe Marketplace at Loops 202 and 101. Avondale in the southwest Valley has the Gateway Pavilions shopping complex at the intersection of I-10 and Loop 101.
Hough said malls provide thieves with a variety of vehicles, a quick getaway on the freeways and an opportunity to work unnoticed as victims are away from their cars for a while taking in a movie, having dinner or shopping.
“They know that it’s going to be several hours before it’s reported stolen, so they have less chance of being caught,” he said.
Scafidi echoed Hough’s comments, saying a mall or sports stadium is the perfect place to steal a car.
“Places where there’s a great concentration of vehicles are prime,” he said. “It just makes sense you don’t have to go traipsing around neighborhoods where you might generate suspicion.”
Brian Salata, executive director of the auto-theft authority, said stolen cars, trucks and vans are most likely destined for use in other crimes — mainly smuggling and for use as getaway vehicles.
Criminals use stolen cars in other crimes because they can’t be traced back to them.
“If you’re going to rob a bank, you don’t take your mom’s car,” Salata said.
He said traditionally, the No. 1 use for stolen vehicles was smuggling — specifically ferrying guns and money into Mexico and drugs and people into the United States.
Nowadays, thieves are more likely to send stolen vehicles to so-called chop shops, where the parts will be stripped and sold, or to scrap-metal dealers, where they’ll be shredded into metal confetti and shipped overseas to China, which has a lack of raw materials.
Increase in technology
While Glendale has the highest vehicle-theft rate per capita, Brandon Blanco, the Glendale police sergeant overseeing the auto-theft unit, said police work hard to decrease thefts.
That work is paying off, he said.
“Since ’05, it’s been reduced by over 50 percent,” he said. “In ’05, we had over 3,000 motor-vehicle thefts. Last year, we had just under, what, 1,500, it looks like. From that perspective, we’re doing something right.”
That downward trend was interrupted in 2010, when thefts rose about 7 percent from 1,334 in 2010 to 1,430 in 2011.
Blanco said he considered that a small increase and pointed out that the city was on track to see reduced theft cases, with only 597 occurring from January to June of this year.
Glendale police spokeswoman Tracey Breeden said the department has had success in the city’s partnership with the state task force, a collaboration of city, county, state and federal law-enforcement agencies. Less than a year ago, the city started reporting thefts more quickly to the task force, which disseminates the information to law-enforcement agencies around the state. That increases the police’s chances of catching criminals.
Officials are also purchasing a new bait car this fiscal year, Blanco said. The department doesn’t disclose the number of bait cars, nor their makes and models, to keep the information from being used by thieves.
Glendale also plans to buy four fixed license-plate readers, which can be attached to light poles. The cameras scan license plates on passing vehicles and cross-check them with vehicles reported stolen.
The department already has the readers on four of its patrol cars, at a cost of about $20,000 per vehicle.
Phoenix had the second-highest rate of theft cases. Police spokesman Sgt. Trent Crump downplayed the significance of that rate, saying it’s unfair to compare the city with others in the Valley due to the wildly diverse demographics.
“Demographics of cities plays a large role in the crime rate,” he said in an e-mail. “I believe a fair comparison would be to other cities that share the same demographics and share in the title of major metropolitan cities.”
Crump said areas with large apartment developments tend to attract large numbers of thefts. He said police have noticed a large increase in thefts between about 9 p.m. and 3:30 a.m.
“People do things under the cover of darkness,” he said.
Vehicle theft is trending down in Phoenix and in its neighboring cities, but Crump said the problem is far from solved.
“It was a hotbed here,” he said of the Valley’s auto thefts. “It was a big deal. It doesn’t mean there’s still not work to do.”
The relatively small city of Avondale’s high per capita ranking caught police officials there by surprise.
The city, with a population of only 77,518 people, is fourth-highest on the list of Valley cities.
“Of course it disappoints me,” said Avondale Police Chief Kevin Kotsur. “It’s not the kind of goal I’m shooting for as the police chief.”
Memo Espinoza, a lieutenant overseeing criminal investigations, said one particular area is a constant thorn for the department: the shopping and entertainment district near 99th Avenue and McDowell Road.
“There are four different jurisdictions in that area, and then you have two freeways there, and we believe that’s a factor,” he said.
The jurisdictions are Avondale, Tolleson, Phoenix and the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office, which oversees a county island in the area.
“I don’t want to sound like we’re blaming (other departments) for our problem,” he said. “It’s kind of more complicated when you have more jurisdictions.”
Like other agencies, Espinoza said, the department has employed bait cars in recent years. Police also have enlisted the help from security personnel at shopping centers to help boost vigilance in parking lots. Espinoza said the department has also improved communication with police departments who share the border.
Espinoza said those efforts have paid off. The city had a peak year for auto-theft cases in 2007, when thieves stole or attempted to steal nearly 840 vehicles. By 2009, there were 546 thefts and attempted thefts, and by 2011, there were 232, he said.
Gilbert has lower crime in general compared with the rest of the Valley, and the city is frequently touted as one of the safest in the U.S. in national rankings. So it comes as no surprise to Police Chief Tim Dorn that his city has a lower auto-theft rate than other major cities.
Dorn said auto theft is still a crime his department works hard to prevent.
He called it a “focus crime,” which the department gives special attention. By analyzing crime data on a regular basis to predict emerging trends, Dorn said he knows where to deploy officers and bait cars to catch thieves.
“It’s using past crime trends to try to prevent future crime trends,” he said. “Those crime analysts are worth their weight in gold to us.”