Center for Problem-Oriented Policing

Understanding Your Local Problem

The information provided above is only a generalized description of the problem of thefts of and from cars in residential neighborhoods. You must combine the basic facts with a more specific understanding of your local problem. Analyzing the local problem carefully will help you design a more effective response strategy. Your main emphasis should be on understanding the environmental settings in which the thefts occur in your suburban residential communities, and identifying those people in your community who can help change those settings.

In most cases, the main problem will be theft from cars, and you should try to determine the kind of offenders involved (e.g., transients, drug addicts, juveniles). On the other hand, if the problem is mainly theft of cars, you will need to determine the motive, whether for joyriding, for transport, or for profit. The principal indicators of motive are recovery rates, though the model stolen will also help determine the motive because certain kinds of thieves favor certain models, which vary according to how easy they are to steal, or the valued parts that they contain.9

Stakeholders

Determining which individuals and groups have a stake in the problem and its resolution is an important first step in collecting information about the problem. In addition to criminal justice agencies, the following groups are likely to have some stake or interest in the problem because they may be able to effect changes in the environmental settings in which the thefts occur. Without their help, you will be limited to reactive responses to calls for service and to making occasional arrests, without the ability to implement any changes in the environment that may prevent the thefts from occurring. Stakeholders include:

For Driveways

  • homeowners or tenants
  • home insurance companies.

For Streets

  • town supervisors
  • building surveyors
  • traffic engineers
  • urban planners
  • local community groups.

For Both Locations

  • auto insurance companies
  • car owners.

Gathering Intelligence

The most important first step must be the collection of relevant data. It is only through the systematic collection of information concerning characteristics of location, times and methods used by offenders that a clear picture of the problem will emerge. This information can then be used both to inform local car owners and residents of the problem as well as to train police officers.

In many densely populated areas, thefts from cars go uninvestigated if there is no information from the victim as to the identity of the perpetrator. Frequently, police departments do not even send an officer to the scene to investigate or to interview the victim. Reports on these types of offenses are often simply taken over the telephone and entered into the departments’ records. While this sort of action may be pragmatic in overburdened police agencies, when attempting to address a specific problem it causes the loss of a great deal of information that may be of assistance. Identifying one or more perpetrators can alleviate a problem by removing the offender and providing insight into the characteristics, motives, and methods of operation of the thieves. Furthermore, the collection of intelligence concerning the scene of the theft may also help in prevention if the information is routinely shared with a crime analyst, who may help, using mapping techniques, to identify risky locations. (See Crime Analysis for Problem Solvers in 60 Small Steps for further guidance on problem analysis.) The following specific intelligence collection methods may be particularly useful for this type of problem:

  • Sending an officer to each report of theft from a car can provide an opportunity for the police to uncover details about the crime not likely to be discovered by telephone. It provides the officer an opportunity to interview neighbors and perhaps uncover additional clues or additional crimes. Moreover, such responsiveness demonstrates to the residents that the department takes their concerns seriously and is implementing measures to help.
  • Forming a task force to investigate car crimes in the target area can be an effective way of concentrating effort into solving the crimes. A group of officers and detectives who have the opportunity to focus on a single problem can develop a clearer picture of the overall pattern. They can coordinate their efforts and synthesize information from multiple sources without the distraction of handling numerous other calls and investigations.
  • Interviewing offenders as to their motivation and methods can help police develop new approaches to the problem, and to determine which efforts they have employed are effective and which are not.The San Diego police used this method and determined that the perpetrators in their area typically focused on apartment complexes, worked in pairs and traveled to the area by car from several miles away.10,†† These same interviews conducted by San Diego detectives revealed that a single pair of offenders was often responsible for dozens, sometimes hundreds of theft incidents. This is consistent with a large body of research that shows that a small proportion of offenders is responsible for the vast majority of crime.11 Gathering detailed information from offenders can reveal the type of offender and suggest proper courses of action. For example, if your analysis reveals that professionals are stealing vehicles for stripping or resale, investigation can focus on identifying suitable locations for the thieves to carry out such an operation.

    See Problem-Solving Tools Guide No. 3, Using Offender Interviews to Inform Police Problem Solving, for advice on how to conduct such interviews.

    †† Police researchers in the United Kingdom used an alternative method of gathering intelligence against professional car thieves: They distributed questionnaires to police investigators who dealt with car crime and collected data about their knowledge of offenders. Among other information, the study indicated that joyriders tend to graduate to other vehicle crimes, and it identified common traits of facilities used as chop shops (Hinchliffe, 1994).

Asking the Right Questions

The following are some questions you should ask in analyzing your particular problem of thefts of and from cars on suburban residential streets or driveways, even if the answers are not always readily available. Your answers to these and other questions will help you choose the most appropriate set of responses later on.

Incidents

  • Is theft of cars or theft from cars the primary problem? (Different offender motivations may suggest particular responses.)
  • What factors explain why some offenses were successfully completed and others were not (e.g., presence of alarms on vehicles, witnesses deterred offenders)?
  • What percentage of offenses has not been reported to police? (You will need to survey area residents to learn this information.) Why have some offenses not been reported to police?
  • Are there other incidents, unknown to your department, being investigated by another police agency?
  • Are thefts occurring simultaneously with other crimes or events (e.g., vandalism, thefts of other property, burglary to houses)?
  • How is entry gained into the vehicle? By unlocked doors or open windows, or by forced entry?
  • Where has any stolen property been recovered (e.g., chop shops, pawn shops, other resale shops, offenders’ homes)?
  • How is stolen property disposed of (e.g., offenders keep it for their own use, sell it, or trade it for other valuables)?

Offenders

  • Are the offenders drug addicts looking for money to purchase their drug of choice?
  • Are they transients passing through the area to another particular location, such as a bar or apartment complex?
  • Are the offenders juveniles who are more likely to be out on weekends?
  • Are the car thieves professionals who are selecting particular cars or car components?
  • Are the cars being stolen for transportation/ entertainment (“joyriding”)?
  • What other crimes or problems are offenders involved in? (Understanding this might provide insights into the types of offenders.)
  • Are the offenders locals or outsiders?

    The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department found that transient alcoholics who made a daily trip from the shelters along an abandoned rail line to the city’s downtown office parking areas primarily caused their theft from vehicle problem. Part of the solution was to deny access to the rail line by installation of a new trolley system (Clarke and Goldstein, 2003).

Victims

  • Are particular vehicle owners repeatedly victimized?
  • Do certain victim behaviors contribute to thefts (for example, leaving keys or valuables plainly visible in vehicles)?

Thefts of Cars

  • Which models are stolen?
  • What proportion of stolen cars is recovered?
  • Which models are less likely to be recovered?
  • How soon are they recovered?
  • Where are they recovered?
  • Are they damaged?
  • Have items been stolen?

Thefts from Cars

  • Are there favored methods of gaining entry to cars?
  • What is stolen?
  • Where and how are items fenced?

Locations/Times

  • Do the thefts occur in streets or driveways or both?
  • Is the problem confined to parking lots in or around apartment complexes?
  • Is the problem confined to streets in single-family residential areas, or driveways of single-family residences?
  • Where are the thefts occurring? On which streets? Is there a pattern or hot spot?
  • During what time of day, day of the week, days of the month, and months of the year do the crimes most commonly occur?
  • Do offenses occur during special events (e.g., nearby sporting or other entertainment events, or large parties)?
  • What is the character of the surrounding neighborhood?

Conditions Facilitating Theft

  • What are the most likely routes of ingress and egress in the area for thieves?
  • What are the typical vehicle traffic patterns in the area (e.g., one-way streets, cul-de-sacs, heavy or light traffic)?
  • What are the typical pedestrian traffic patterns in the area?
  • What are the lighting conditions (on the streets and around houses) at the time of the offenses?
  • What type of concealment is available to thieves (e.g., heavy foliage, dark areas, buildings, walls and fences)?
  • Are there parking facilities nearby that might offer more secure parking?

Current Responses to the Problem

  • Are residents aware of the problem? If so, how concerned are they about it?
  • What actions, if any, have residents and vehicle owners taken to prevent thefts?
  • Are other groups involved and/or calling for an improved response to the problem?
  • What actions have police taken to address the problem?
  • What number and percentage of offenses have been cleared by arrest?
  • What have been the typical outcomes of criminal prosecutions of offenders?

Measuring Your Effectiveness

Measurement allows you to determine to what degree your efforts have succeeded, and suggests how you might modify your responses if they are not producing the intended results. You should take measures of your problem before you implement responses, to determine how serious the problem is, and after you implement them, to determine whether they have been effective. All measures should be taken in both the target area and the surrounding area. For more detailed guidance on measuring effectiveness, see Problem Solving Tool Guide No. 1, Assessing Responses to Problems: An Introductory Guide for Police Problem-Solvers.

The following are potentially useful measures of the effectiveness of responses to thefts of and from cars:

  • Fewer thefts reported to police
  • Fewer related crimes in the area (e.g., vandalism, other thefts, burglary)
  • Reduced value of stolen property
  • Reduced concern among area residents about the problem
  • Reduced theft reports to car insurance companies
  • Fewer complaints from concerned citizens, community groups, or elected officials about the problem.

The following measures, while not direct measures of effectiveness, may indicate progress toward reduced thefts:

  • Increased calls for service (reflecting more witnesses to theft)
  • Increased apprehensions of suspects
  • Increased recovery of stolen property
  • Fewer poorly secured cars or items left in view
  • Less evidence of glass from broken windows or windshields.