Center for Problem-Oriented Policing

To print this guide, click on your web browser's "Print" icon, or go to the menubar and select "File..Print"

Thefts of and from Cars on Residential Streets and Driveways

Guide No. 46 (2007)

by Todd Keister

What This Guide Does and Does Not Cover

This guide begins by describing the problem of theft of and from cars in residential neighborhoods and by reviewing factors that increase its risks. It then identifies a series of questions to help you analyze your local problem. Finally, it reviews responses to the problem and what is known about these from evaluative research and police practice.

Theft of and from cars in residential neighborhoods is only one of a number of vehicle-related problems that occur in residential neighborhoods that the police must address. This guide is limited to addressing only the harms created by theft of and from cars in streets and driveways in such neighborhoods. It does not cover thefts in parking facilities, except where especially relevant. Related problems not directly addressed in this guide, each of which require separate analysis, include:

Not all car thieves are non-violent criminals. Stolen cars are used as tools to facilitated other crimes such as drug trafficking or as "getaway" vehicles in robberies or burglaries.

Not all car thieves are non-violent criminals. Stolen cars are used as tools to facilitated other crimes such as drug trafficking or as "getaway" vehicles in robberies or burglaries.

As many as 10 percent of all reported thefts of automobiles are fraudulent. Vehicle owners may stage a phony theft of their vehicle because they are no longer able or willing to make the required vehicle loan payments, or in order to defraud their insurance carrier for financial gain. Consequently, at least some portion of what is perceived to be a vehicle crime problem might in fact be an insurance fraud problem (Arizona Criminal Justice Commission, Statistical Analysis Center, 2004).

Some of these related problems are covered in other guides in this series, all of which are listed at the end of this guide. For the most up-to-date listing of current and future guides, see www.popcenter.org.

General Description of the Problem

Theft from parked carsis one of the most common complaints received by police in residential neighborhoods. According to U.S. Department of Justice statistics, these types of crimes make up some 36 percent of all larcenies reported to the police. Crimes in general and property crimes in particular tend to be underreported to authorities. As a result, the problem may be worse than it appears in statistics reported by police. In the United Kingdom, a nationwide survey found that only 47 percent of all car crime was reported to the police. In contrast, nearly all thefts of cars are reported to the authorities, because of the significant monetary loss and insurance company reporting requirements.

Thefts from vehicles are variously referred to by police around the country as “vehicle burglaries,” “vehicle larcenies,” “car cloutings” (St. Louis), and “car prowls.”

Thefts from vehicles usually involve small dollar values in terms of the property stolen, but they take up considerable police resources and increase residents’ fear of crime. These thefts excepted, crime rates in suburban residential neighborhoods are otherwise low. However, recurring thefts from cars in a residential community can erode residents’ feelings of safety and security, as well as their confidence in police and other authorities.

While generally a more significant problem in metropolitan areas, thefts of cars also pose a significant crime problem in many suburban jurisdictions. Cars are generally stolen for one of three purposes: (1) for temporary transportation, such as use in another crime or for “joyriding”; (2) to strip the car of its valuable parts for resale; (3) to re-sell it, often disguised as a legitimate car. The vast majority of car thefts are committed for transportation or “joyriding.” 1 Stolen cars generate higher insurance costs, inconvenience, and financial losses for car owners as well as the risks to the safety of police officers and other motorists from stolen vehicle pursuits.

Factors Contributing to Thefts of and from Cars on Residential Streets and Driveways

Understanding the factors that contribute to your problem will help you frame your own local analysis questions, determine proper effectiveness measures, recognize key intervention points, and select appropriate responses. Where and when cars are parked are probably the most significant factors that offer opportunity to thieves.

Location

At single-family residences. Because suburban residential areas are relatively safe and quiet, residents can become complacent about car security. They may leave their car doors unlocked or the keys in the ignition. Oftentimes, their homes’ exterior lighting is wholly inadequate. Overly tall shrubbery and other brush on the premises can provide thieves with cover. An entire neighborhood filled with unlocked cars and poorly lit homes, with plenty of cover, is an inviting scene for a thief.

On the street. National Crime Survey data indicate that most car thefts (37 percent) occurs on the street outside the victim’s home.2 A study conducted in the United Kingdom revealed that a car parked on the street is much more likely to be targeted by criminals than a car parked in a driveway, as can be seen in Table 1.3 Hampshire (United Kingdom) police discovered that nearly one-half of all car crimes in Portsmouth occurred on only about 10 percent of the city’s streets and that the pattern was even further concentrated within those streets.4

Table 1. Risk of Car Theft by Parking Location in England and Wales (1982-1994)

Location Thefts per 100,000 cars per 24 hours
Home garage 2
Home carport/drive 40
Home street 117

Cars in residential locations that are adjacent to lower-tier socioeconomic neighborhoods (which often have higher crime rates) are generally more vulnerable. Thieves who reside in the high-crime neighborhoods need only walk a few blocks to search for items or cars to steal. They have the advantage of being familiar with the area.

Residential subdivisions. Residential subdivisions surrounded by rural lands and not served by public transportation are less likely to suffer from chronic car crime. Thieves would have to travel to the location, and then walk around in unfamiliar neighborhoods where they are more likely to appear out of place and attract suspicion. Also, these areas often have no sidewalks, so pedestrian traffic in general draws attention.

Time

Thefts of and from cars in suburban residential areas generally occur at night. This is because it is the time most cars are present in these areas, as well as the fact that darkness provides cover for the thieves. In residential areas that contain multi-family apartment complexes, parking lots can be vulnerable to thefts during the day because there are many people using the lots, thus providing anonymity to the offender. Some special events that draw large numbers of vehicles to an area also generate high volumes of thefts from cars.5

Type of Car

Data on the most frequently stolen new cars and parts are compiled by the Highway Loss Data Institute (www.iihs. org) and the Insurance Information Institute (www.iii.org) and are published annually online. Data on the theft of older model cars are reported by the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) (www.nicb.org). In general, older models of cars are more often stolen than more recent models because fewer of them contain in-built anti-theft devices, and thieves learn that particular models of cars are easier to steal than others. However, newer models may be targeted for theft if they contain expensive components in great demand (on the next page).

Items Targeted for Theft

A Ford Mustang stripped of its airbags and other interior components.

A Ford Mustang stripped of its airbags and other interior components. Credit: www.baitcar.com

Frequently, thefts from cars will occur in clusters. Numerous larcenies may be reported during the early morning hours when one or more thieves have passed through a neighborhood looking for property to steal. In general, two kinds of property are stolen: personal items and car components. Personal items that owners may leave in their cars include loose change, laptop computers, portable music players, and wallets or pocket books. The United Kingdom Home Office reported that personal valuables inside the passenger compartment accounted for 35 percent of items stolen, while stereo components made up 27 percent of the stolen items.6 Compact discs as well as car stereo parts and accessories can easily be traded for cash at second-hand music stores or pawnshops. These items can also be difficult to trace, as few owners take the time to record the serial numbers of after-market stereo components. Targeted car components change as the different features become highly valued. For a time stereo equipment was targeted, but now air bags and expensive parts such as high-intensity discharge or xenon headlamps are prized.The National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) reports more than 75,000 thefts of airbags annually.7 Many of the techniques associated with stealing cars for parts or resale differ from thefts of personal items from cars. 8

The Highway Loss Data Institute reported that the 2002 and 2003 Nissan Maxima was most often targeted for theft of its high-intensity discharge headlamps in 2003.

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

For Streets

For Both Locations

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:

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

Offenders

Victims

Thefts of Cars

Thefts from Cars

Locations/Times

Conditions Facilitating Theft

Current Responses to the Problem

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:

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

Responses to the Problem of Thefts of and from Cars on Residential Streets and Driveways

Your analysis of your particular problem should give you a better understanding of the factors contributing to it. Once you have analyzed your local problem and established a baseline for measuring effectiveness, you should consider possible responses to address the problem.

The following responses, drawing from a variety of research studies and police reports, provide a foundation of ideas for addressing your particular problem. Several of these responses may apply to your community’s problem. It is critical that you tailor responses to local circumstances, and that you can justify each response based on reliable analysis. In most cases, an effective strategy will involve implementing several different approaches. Law enforcement responses alone are seldom effective in reducing or solving the problem. Do not limit yourself to considering what police can do: give careful consideration to who else in your community shares responsibility for the problem and can help police better respond to it. The responsibility of responding, in some cases, may need to be shifted toward those who have the capacity to implement more effective responses. (For more detailed information on shifting and sharing responsibility, see Response Guide No. 3, Shifting and Sharing Responsibility for Public Safety Problems.)

General Considerations for an Effective Response Strategy

While there are a number of effective responses to protect cars that are parked in parking lots or facilities, there are fewer clearly effective solutions that local police can implement to prevent thefts from residential streets and driveways. The streets on which cars are parked may be wide or narrow, treed or bare of vegetation, and lit or unlit; the risks of theft vary according to these environments. The fact that streets and the driveways attached to them are accessible to everyone makes cars very vulnerable. Probably the most effective response for car owners is not to park their cars in the open streets or driveways. Of course, many car owners, especially in more densely populated residential areas, are forced to park on the streets because they do not have garages or driveways.

The capacity to prevent theft of cars and their components at the local level is limited, especially when cars are parked on the street where they are easily accessible at any time of the day, with few obstacles in the way of the thief. The solution in large part depends on car manufacturers, who have begun in recent years to design cars that are much more secure from theft, and on car insurers, who have demanded that cars be designed with security as a major concern, just as they did previously in regard to car safety. 12 Obviously, at the local level, police must respond to the problem regardless of the level of security built into the cars in that vicinity.

Because there is little evaluative research available on this problem, it is uncertain how effective many of the responses described below are. They are nonetheless grounded in accepted crime prevention principles.

  1. Promoting sales of cars with in-built security systems. The most effective techniques that have reduced car theft over the last three decades have been car security systems installed by manufacturers. These systems have included:
    • Steering column locks, which require an ignition key to unlock steering, have been shown as far back as 1970 to be effective in reducing car theft in Europe.13
    • Tracking systems, which use a transmitter within the car to send Global Positioning System (GPS) signals reporting the vehicle location to police, have been found effective in locating the stolen car. 14
    • Electronic immobilizers, which disable the electrical systems at several points, require the owner to authenticate with a transponder or PIN-code to start the car. Immobilizers have reduced car theft in Western Australia, where their installation has been mandated not only for newly manufactured cars but for older models as well.15
    • Car ID security measures include inscribing ID information on car parts or on cars themselves using micro-dot technologies, as well as automatic license plate recognition and VIN etching. There is some initial evidence that these new technologies may work.16

    The majority of these effective responses for reducing thefts of cars require national or statewide action, which may be beyond the reach of your local agency.

    Reforms such as tightening vehicle registration rules require legislative or state agency action.

    There are also some after-market security devices and systems that enjoy wide popularity. These include:

    • Mechanical barriers or locks where the steering wheel or brake pedal is “locked down” with a bar. These should be effective, especially as we know that steering column locks work, but there is no evaluative research available. The common sense advantage of these devices is that they are clearly visible to thieves who may prefer to steal a car that is unlocked and without any visible security system.
    • Sirens and pager alarms that signal a break-in to the owner. No evaluative research is available as to effectiveness.
    • Steering column collars that make access to the ignition electronics more difficult.

    New technologies have shown promise in reducing car theft.17 The local police role with respect to car security systems might be to advocate their use by local car owners.

    All of the above systems, whether manufacturer installed or added later, may be effective against theft of cars, but they will do little to prevent theft from cars.

    As we have seen, cars are generally safer in driveways than parked on streets, but this will depend to some extent on the length of the driveway, shrubbery, lighting, and other factors that affect natural surveillance. Some preventive responses to protect driveways have been found effective–such as those that increase the risk to the offender in carrying out burglaries of single-family houses–there is little research that evaluates the responses outlined below. Many of the examples reported are of promising programs, but because they were not scientifically evaluated it is difficult to rule out other explanations of reported effectiveness.

    See Problem-Specific Guide No. 18, Burglary of Single-family Houses.

    Many common sense techniques may be applied locally, though they may often depend on car owner and property owner action in order to implement them. In fact, some police agencies have found that community residents do not secure their personal property as well as they should. 18 Unsecured cars, cars with valuables left in plain view, poor house and street lighting, and vegetation or other features that provide concealment for thieves are commonplace. Thus, educating citizens often plays a central part in any prevention program adopted by a local police department. 19

  2. Partnering with business. Insurance companies bear much of the cost of thefts, and they may assist police at a local level by providing financial resources and reporting insurance fraud. Insurance companies are becoming more directly involved in crime prevention measures, which is part of a trend of increasing involvement on the part of businesses in combating crime. 20 Police in Colorado Springs (Colorado) were able to obtain unmarked cars for their auto-theft patrol units at no cost from automobile insurance companies.21 Special skills and techniques are needed in developing business partnerships.

    Problem-Solving Tools Guide No. 5, Partnering with Businesses to Address Public Safety Problems, describes the steps police should take in developing productive relationships with businesses.

  3. Promoting securely designed neighborhoods. Taking a long-term view, police can work with property developers and community planners to make sure that new residential developments are designed to create more “defensible space” where cars can be more safely parked and do not have to be parked on open streets.

    See the website of the International CPTED (Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design) Association at www.cpted.net for further information about the relationship between neighborhood design and crime.

  4. Educating patrol officers about car theft patterns. Educating patrol officers as to the nature and extent of the car crime problem can aid in producing more arrests and alleviating public concerns. Information concerning the methods of operation of the thieves and the characteristics of offenders, if known, and any information concerning likely suspects, can be passed on to officers who patrol the problem area. Little scientific evidence exists to demonstrate the effectiveness of such training. However, common sense dictates that if officers can be educated about a problem with a minimum expenditure of resources, they should be more effective at countering the problem.
    • San Diego police instituted a one-day training session for its officers who were patrolling a district that had experienced more than 1,500 thefts from cars in one year–all within one square mile.22
    • The California Highway Patrol instituted a 40-hour Vehicle Theft Investigation Course, held nine times per year, as part of a multi-faceted effort to reduce car crime.23

Specific Responses to Reduce Thefts of and from Cars on Residential Streets and Driveways

The specific responses are classified into three areas: security, education and enforcement. However all three are closely related, and it is likely that any program aimed at reducing thefts of and from cars will include responses from all three areas.

Security

  1. Credit: Todd Keister

    At this suburban home, the configuration of the house, the fencing and vegetation makes the vehicles observable only from the street. The motion light (on the garage) could help to deter a thief. Credit: Todd Keister

    Improving lighting. Most thefts from cars in residential neighborhoods occur at night because this is when most cars are present in these communities and because of the anonymity that darkness provides. Improved street lighting and illumination of private property removes one of the thief ’s greatest allies–the cover of darkness. A study in the United Kingdom found that, of offenders who targeted cars in residential areas for theft, 80 percent limited their activities to the hours of darkness.24 Well-lit streets and homes increase the risk of detection and can act as a deterrent to would-be offenders. Research has demonstrated the positive effects of improved street lighting in reducing criminal activity.25
    • Working with local town or village officials to add additional street lighting to a problem location can serve to make criminals uncomfortable as they walk the streets looking for targets.
    • Encouraging homeowners to install and utilize additional lighting around their homes can also deter thieves. Including this information in town newsletters and flyers, and during presentations at community meetings, are effective means of disseminating this information.

    † Henrico County, Virginia police (2001) coordinated a program in which homeowners shared the costs of additional street lighting to deter thefts from cars.

  2. Removing vegetation and other cover. Thieves looking for quick and easy items to steal choose targets where the risk of detection and apprehension is low. Trees with low branches and high shrubs that obscure the view of the property from the street can provide a thief with concealment. Simple trimming or removal of such vegetation, or alteration of other structures that give cover to thieves, can deprive potential criminals of concealment.26 Tips regarding this subject can be included in flyers and presentations to citizens and groups.
    Credit: Todd Keister

    Vegetation and carport structures such as those pictured here can provide cover for
    thieves. Encouraging property owners to remove or modify such features can help
    reduce the occurrence of theft.

    Local public works or highway department officials may be able to aid in trimming low branches along the street or other vegetation in undeveloped areas to improve visibility and remove readily available concealment for thieves.27

  3. Credit: Todd Keister

    Parking lot barriers such as these can serve as a method of ensuring access to ony authorized vehicles. They also create the appearance that they area is "secured" in some way. Credit: Todd Keister

    Changing or restricting traffic patterns. A key concern for thieves is a rapid means of escape after the event or in the case of discovery. Thieves operating in cars can be discouraged if their potential escape routes are restricted. Dead-end streets afford only one means of ingress and egress, and they also increase the likelihood of drawing attention to any particular car entering the roadway. Streets can be closed to through-traffic by local ordinance, thereby creating both restricted traffic flow and a basis for officers to stop violators and discover perpetrators in the area. Closing streets and diverting traffic can be difficult and complicated and its long-term effects are yet to be evaluated.

    † See Response Guide No. 2, Closing Streets and Alleys to Reduce Crime for a more detailed account of this response to a variety of problems.

  4. Installing and monitoring video surveillance (CCTV). Video surveillance devices can provide a low-cost method (compared to using manpower) of providing 24-hour monitoring of streets. While these devices may not record a criminal act, they could potentially aid the police in identifying a car or known individual that is in the area where the crimes are occurring and who has no reasonable cause to be in such place. However, it is unclear under what circumstances and what specific locations video surveillance may be effective.28 Although the cameras provide 24-hour coverage, unless dozens are employed the odds of capturing a crime on video are negligible. It is likely that video surveillance in itself may be ineffective in identifying and apprehending offenders, depending on the locations, a fact that offenders quickly discover.29 However, new technologies for deciphering unusual movements in video images may increase the effectiveness and efficiency of these devices in the future.
    Credit: Todd Keister

    The use of video surveillance cameras such as the one pictured above may serve as a visual deterrent to thieves and a reminder that someone may be watching or recording their activities. Credit: Todd Keister

    The primary utility of video surveillance lies in increasing potential offenders’ perceived risk of getting caught, rather than in real-time monitoring for identification or apprehension of offenders. Prominently posted signs indicating that the area is under surveillance, combined with media publicity, may enhance the effect of video surveillance, though evaluative research has produced mixed results. Finally, the installation of video cameras in some suburban neighborhoods may be opposed by local citizen groups because of their intrusiveness. Their acceptance would most likely depend on how serious the problem of theft of and from cars was in the neighborhood.

    † For a comprehensive assessment of using video surveillance see Response Guide No. 4., Video Surveillance of Public Places.

Education

  1. Alerting car owners about theft problems and educating them about known risk factors and effective prevention. Car owners often do not secure their personal property as well as they should.30 Educating them on how to protect their cars and their contents has been used as part of an overall police program to reduce the thefts from cars.31,† The first step is to ensure that car owners and area residents are aware that a problem exists. When community members are aware of a car crime problem, they are more likely to take measures to secure their property. Effective information sharing networks may also help in spreading the word. Although some studies (most of which lack control groups) have suggested that owners may take more precautions in protecting their cars after an educational program,32 others suggest that publicity campaigns on their own are unlikely to be effective. A review of two studies conducted in the United Kingdom revealed no significant increase in the number of locked cars, following publicity campaigns.33 Thus, relying on a publicity campaign to solve the problem should only be one part of a larger overall effort to reduce car crime.†† Some approaches to educating the public about car theft and theft from cars are:

    † See Response Guide No. 5, Crime Prevention Publicity Campaigns, for further information about the effectiveness of publicity campaigns.

    †† See the Hampshire Constabulary’s (2004) Operation Cobra for an example of a comprehensive car crime publicity campaign.

    • distributing information flyers and brochures to residences in areas experiencing thefts from cars34,†
    • attending community meetings and making presentations regarding the nature and extent of the problem and steps vehicle owners can take to guard against theft
    • erecting signs warning citizens parking in a shopping mall lot not to leave valuables in their vehicles35
    • issuing press releases to newspapers, radio, and television media outlets
    • holding press conferences along with local government officials and/or community groups
    • placing notices in neighborhood and association newsletters
    • placing notices on the windshields of unsecured vehicles and those with valuables in plain view, indicating that the vehicle was vulnerable to theft36
    • enclosing information about insurance discounts available to customers who have anti-theft devices installed on their vehicles in regular insurance company mailings.

    † Vehicle theft prevention brochures are available online at no charge from the National Crime Prevention Council (www.ncpc.org) as well as the National Insurance Crime Bureau (www.nicb.org).

    Among the most important messages to convey to car owners are the following:

    • Vehicles are safer in a garage, more at risk in a driveway, and much more at risk on the street.
    • Buying a late model car will also ensure that modern security systems have been installed. Checking the ratings of most stolen models may also indicate to the owner what cars are at risk.
    • If car owners must park their cars on the street, advising the installation of after market security systems, especially those that are clearly visible to the thief, is probably better than nothing.

Enforcement

  1. Increasing patrols. While the effectiveness of increased patrols as a means of deterring crime has not been established, there are some occasions where they may be useful, particularly when crime analysis data can demonstrate a clear pattern of thefts in certain locations and at certain times. Monitoring the results of intensive patrols is important, especially as they demand considerable police department resources. For this reason they are only of use as temporary solutions and do not solve the problem in the long term.
    • Unmarked patrol units can be used to monitor the area and to track and identify suspicious individuals in the neighborhood.
    • Coral Springs, Florida police utilized foot patrols and bicycle-mounted officers in their Forest Hills Initiative aimed at reducing thefts from cars. 37 These types of patrols not only increase the opportunity for police to discover offenders, but also improve their chances of apprehending these perpetrators who typically are on foot.
  2. Prosecuting offenders. Working with local prosecutors to ensure aggressive prosecution and punishment may temporarily remove prolific offenders from the community and serve as a deterrent to others. Some argue that lack of prosecution results in low levels of fear of arrest among offenders. However, the British Home Office found that, among offenders involved in stealing cars, fear of apprehension and punishment was not a significant deterrent; though when asked if a new law mandating stiff penalties would deter them, over half of the thieves interviewed said that it would.38 One police agency in the United Kingdom devised a flyer to be given to auto theft offenders released on bail, which warned that they would be closely monitored, and advised them of the consequences of breaking the conditions of their release.39
  3. Using “bait cars.” Placing cars in plain view can provide a target for police to observe and catch offenders in the act. Maintaining cars under continuous surveillance is labor-intensive, although technological innovations such as GPS tracking and cars that automatically broadcast to patrol cars when they are broken into have made this easier. Some research has suggested that this type of program might be effective in reducing car crime.40 This response is more effective when it is known what type of car is most often targeted for theft, or when a particular area is experiencing a very high volume of thefts from cars. In British Columbia, Canada, police officials have formed a task force of seven provincial and local police agencies that utilize bait cars which, when stolen, immediately notify dispatchers and transmit their position via GPS tracking. Once police are in place behind the car, the engine is disabled with the click of a mouse button, allowing apprehension without the concern of a pursuit situation developing.41,† While this technique offers promise in reducing or eliminating high speed car chases, there is to date no research to demonstrate that this approach reduces or prevents car theft.

    †The IMPACT Team in British Columbia has launched a website (www.baitcar.com) where citizens can view in-car video of the thefts and subsequent arrests involving bait cars. The site includes crime prevention tips, and has generated thousands of daily hits. They have recently launched new initiatives including bait Alternative Terrain Vehicles, motorcycles, boats, and snowmobiles.

  4. Tracking stolen goods. Local pawnshops and second-hand stores that trade in the most frequently stolen items, such as compact disks and car stereos, should be contacted directly. Not only can they be checked for any identifiable items (most states require pawn brokers to record the identity of all persons delivering property to them, and to show their records to the police upon demand), but police can also use the opportunity to educate store owners about the problem, enlist their aid, and/or warn them of the consequences of receiving stolen property.

Responses With Limited Effectiveness

  1. Credit: Todd Keister

    Neighborhood Watch signs are ubiquitous in many suburban areas and are generally ineffective, as suggested by the graffiti on the sign. Credit: Todd Keister

    Warning offenders. Most thieves are aware of the threat of apprehension and prosecution. Installing Neighborhood Watch signs or other devices to warn offenders generally does not act as a significant deterrent42 to experienced offenders who realize that detection and apprehension are unlikely, and that prosecution is even less likely.
  2. Diverting youthful offenders. Diverting youthful offenders involved in car crime to programs designed to provide them with a positive outlet for their energies and interests is intended to discourage them from continuing to engage in crime. Unfortunately, most research has demonstrated that these programs have a limited or no effectiveness in reducing car-related crime. A review of diversion programs in the United Kingdom found no evidence for their effectiveness in reducing joyriding.43

    Some examples of diversion programs aimed at young auto thieves are:

    • The youth and probation services in High Wycombe, United Kingdom initiated a program known as Skidz, that provides at-risk young people with free access to automotive mechanical training and driver education, as well as literacy and job training services.44
    • Royal Canadian Mounted Police in Williams Lake, British Columbia discovered through their analysis that young First Nation males were responsible for the majority of the rampant auto theft in the area. Working with tribal leaders from the nearby reservation, they established programs for diversion of first offenders. In addition, they set up programs of educational and cultural exchange between members of the civilian and law enforcement communities of the city, and with the youth of the reservation. The result was a reduction in the car theft rate and improvement in overall relations between the two communities.45 This finding remains tentative however, because of lack of controls in the research design.
  3. Implementing “Vehicle Watch” programs. This approach involves a voluntary agreement between the police and citizens who permit the police to stop their cars without cause if it is seen in operation during certain late-night hours. A special sticker identifies the car. A study in the United Kingdom suggests that the risk of theft can be reduced over the short term.46 However, the results are inconclusive,47 and other research using interviews with offenders indicates that these stickers can easily be defeated by covering them with another sticker or simply scraping them off. In another U.K. study of offender attitudes, 82 percent of car thieves stated they would not be deterred by cars carrying the vehicle watch sticker.48

    A rear window decal indicates the vehicle owner grants permission to police to stop the vehicle if it is seen being operated during late night hours.

Additional Resources

National Audit Office in Partnership with the Home Office“Theft from Motor Vehicles — Identifying Potential Offenders” [PDF]

National Audit Office in Partnership with the Home Office“Using Communication to Tackle Theft from Vehicles” [PDF]

Summary of Responses

The table below summarizes the responses in this guide, the mechanism by which they are intended to work, the conditions under which they ought to work best, and some factors you should consider before implementing a particular response. It is critical that you tailor responses to local circumstances, and that you can justify each response based on reliable analysis. In most cases, an effective strategy will involve implementing several different responses. Law enforcement responses alone are seldom effective in reducing or solving the problem.

Because of the lack of evaluative research all responses are considered to be of uncertain effectiveness and should be adopted on an experimental basis with a high premium placed on carefully measuring their success or failure.

General Considerations for an Effective Response Strategy
# Response How It Works Works Best If… Considerations
1 Promoting sales of cars with in-built security systems Make theft of cars more difficult …manufacturers design security into cars Local police limited to educating car owners about theft prevention
2 Partnering with business Increases resources available to address problem …police and businesses understand one another’s interests Requires time and effort to develop close relationships with business
3 Promoting securely-designed neighborhoods Provides secure places to park cars …local police work with developers and planners in initial design ofneighborhoods Requires expertise in crime prevention through environmental design
4 Educating patrol officer about car theft patterns Enhances officers’ abilities to detect and prevent car crimes …training supported by reliable data and knowledge May add training costs
Security
# Response How It Works Works Best If… Considerations
5 Improving lighting Increases risk of detection to offender …homeowners install and utilize additional lighting around their homes and/or local townships add additional street lighting Local townships may lack funds for additional lighting; homeowners may also lack the funds or motivation for installation of additional lighting
6 Removing vegetation and other cover Increases chances of thief ’s discovery … homeowners are made aware of the benefits Requires time and effort from homeowners and/or public works agencies
7 Changing or restricting traffic patterns Makes it more difficult for thieves to escape the scene of the crime …entrance and exit points ofparking lots and housing subdivisions are limited Changing traffic patterns may be inconvenient for local residents; may require government approval
8 Installing and monitoring video surveillance (CCTV) Increases offenders’ perceived risk ofapprehension …cameras are visibly placed in residential streets combined with signs or media publicity regarding their presence Cameras must be visible in order to be effective; privacy concerns; sprawl of suburban areas requires many cameras and signs
Education
# Response How It Works Works Best If… Considerations
9 Alerting car owners about theft problems and educating them about known risk factors and effective prevention Increases likelihood car owners will take effective measures to prevent car crime …with cooperation ofmass media and local community groups Outreach activities are demanding in cost and time to police; difficult to get car owners to implement security procedures
Enforcement
# Response How It Works Works Best If… Considerations
10 Increasing patrols Increases the risk to offenders and helps inform officers of risky locations in neighborhood …foot and bicycle patrols are employed along with volunteer units to patrol areas Availability ofmanpower and overtime funds for increased patrols; rarely a long-term solution
11 Prosecuting offenders Increases perceived costs to offender …repeat offenders are targeted for full prosecution Prosecutor’s office must be fully aware of the community and/or political concern to reduce theft
12 Using “bait cars” Provides a target for thieves and a means for police to rapidly respond and apprehend offenders …the cars are equipped with high-tech features such as GPS tracking, automatic alerts to dispatchers or patrols, and remote disabling of the car’s engine High cost ofbait car units; placement ofthe bait car in a widely dispersed community
13 Tracking stolen goods Discourages thieves from selling stolen property …police educate store owners about the problem Cooperation of store owners may be compromised by fear ofprosecution
Responses With Limited Effectiveness
# Response How It Works Works Best If… Considerations
14 Warning offenders Intended to increase the perceived risk of apprehension and punishment …offenders are genuinely unaware of the risk of arrest and punishment and risk is not negligible Most thieves are aware of the risk of apprehension and prosecution
15 Diverting youthful offenders Provides attractive venues for youths seeking excitement …youthful offenders are motivated by legitimate alternatives to crime
16 Implementing “Vehicle Watch” programs Intended to increase risk of apprehension by police Stickers are easily defeated by scraping or covering

Endnotes

[1] California Highway Patrol (2003). [Full text]

[2] Harlow, 1988 cited in Clarke and Harris (1992a).

[3] Clarke and Mayhew (1998).

[4] Hampshire Constabulary (2004) [Full text].

[5] Hampshire Constabulary (2004) [Full text].

[6] Vehicle Crime Reduction Action Team (1999).

[7] Klein (2004).

[8] Tilley (1993); Clarke and Harris (1992a); Clarke and Harris (1992b).

[9] Clarke and Harris (1992a).

[10] San Diego (California) Police Department (1997) [Full text].

[11] Brighton and Hove (UK) Partnership Community Safety Team (2004). [Full text]

[12] Newman (2004) [Abstract only].

[13] Webb (1994) [Full text].

[14] Ayres and Levitt (1998).

[15] Brown (2004) [Abstract only]; Carroll (2004) [Abstract only].

[16] Henderson, et al. (2004) [Full text]; Whitley, et al., 2002, cited in Linden and Chaturvedi (2005); Brown (2004) [Abstract only].

[17] Henderson, et al. (2004) [Full text]; Whitley, et al., 2002, cited in Linden and Chaturvedi (2005); Brown (2004) [Abstract only].

[18] Fresno County (California) Sheriff's Department (2002) [Full text].

[19] San Diego (California) Police Department (1997) [Full text]; Coral Springs (Florida) Police Department (2003) [Full text].

[20] Roach-Anleu, Mazerolle and Presser (2000).

[21] Ricks (1991) [Full text].

[22] San Diego (California) Police Department (1997) [Full text].

[23] International Association of Chiefs of Police (2005).

[24] Light, Nee and Ingham (1993) [Full text].

[25] Welsh and Farrington (2003).

[26] Smith (1996) [Full text].

[27] Carrollton (Texas) Police Department (2005). [Full text]

[28] Phillips (1999) [Full text]; Webb, Brown and Bennett (1992).

[29] Tilley (1993).

[30] Fresno County (California) Sheriff's Department (2002) [Full text].

[31] San Diego (California) Police Department (1997) [Full text]; Coral Springs (Florida) Police Department (2003) [Full text].

[32] Barthe (2004). [Abstract only]

[33] Clarke and Harris (1992a); Clarke and Harris (1992b).

[34] Fresno County (California) Sheriff's Department (2002) [Full text]; Carrollton (Texas) Police Department (2005) [Full text]

[35] Edmonton (Canada) Police Service (1994) [Full text].

[36] Coral Springs (Florida) Police Department (2003) [Full text]; Carrollton (Texas) Police Department (2005) [Full text]

[37] Coral Springs (Florida) Police Department (2003) [Full text].

[38] Nee (1993).

[39] Lancashire Constabulary (2001) [Full text].

[40] Sallybanks (2001) [Full text] [Briefing Note].

[41] Integrated Municipal Provincial Auto Crime Team (2005).

[42] Rosenbaum (2003)

[43] Sugg (1998) [Full text].

[44] NACRO (1999).

[45] Royal Canadian Mounted Police (1997) [Full text].

[46] Honess and Maguire (1993) [Full text].

[47] Ethridge and Sorensen (1993).

[48] Light, Nee and Ingham (1993) [Full text].

References

Arizona Criminal Justice Commission, Statistical Analysis Center (2004). “Arizona Auto Theft Study.” Phoenix (Arizona).

Ayres, I., and S. Levitt (1998). “Measuring Positive Externalities from Unobservable Victim Precaution: An Empirical Analysis.” The Quarterly Journal of Economics 113(1):43-77.

Barthe, E. (2004). “Publicity and Car Crime Prevention.” In M.G. Maxfield and R.V. Clarke (eds.), Understanding and Preventing Car Theft. Crime Prevention Studies, volume 17. Monsey (New York): Criminal Justice Press. [Abstract only]

Brighton and Hove (United Kingdom) Partnership Community Safety Team (2004). “Prolific and Other Priority Offenders.” Community Safety Crime and Drugs Audit. [Full text]

Brown, R. (2004). “The Effectiveness of Electronic Immobilization: Changing Patterns of Temporary and Permanent Vehicle Theft.” In M.G. Maxfield and R.V. Clarke (eds.), Understanding and Preventing Car Theft. Crime Prevention Studies, volume 17. Monsey (New York): Criminal Justice Press. [Abstract only]

California Highway Patrol (2003). “Vehicle Ownership Security. A Proactive Approach to Vehicle Theft Prevention in California.” Submission for the Herman Goldstein Award for Excellence in Problem-Oriented Policing. [Full text]

Carroll, R. (2004). “Preventing Vehicle Crime in Australia through Partnerships and National Collaboration.” In M.G. Maxfield and R.V. Clarke (eds.), Understanding and Preventing Car Theft. Crime Prevention Studies, volume 17. Monsey (New York): Criminal Justice Press. [Abstract only]

Carrollton (Texas) Police Department (2005). “Reducing Vehicle Burglaries.” Submission for the Herman Goldstein Award for Excellence in Problem-Oriented Policing. [Full text]

Clarke, R., and H. Goldstein (2003). Thefts from Cars in Center City Parking Facilities: A Case Study. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Community Oriented Policing Services. [Full text]

Clarke, R., and P. Harris (1992a). “The Rational Choice Perspective on the Targets of Automobile Theft.” Criminal Behaviour and Mental Health 2(1):25-42.

Clarke, R., and P. Harris (1992b). “Auto Theft and Its Prevention.” In M. Tonry (ed.), Crime and Justice: A Review of Research, volume 16. Chicago (Illinois): University of Chicago Press.

Clarke, R., and P. Mayhew (1998). “Preventing Crime in Parking Lots: What We Know and What We Need to Know.” In M. Felson and R. Peiser (eds.), Reducing Crime through Real Estate Development and Management. Washington, D.C.: Urban Land Institute.

Coral Springs (Florida) Police Department (2003). “The Forest Hills Boulevard Initiative: An Educational Initiative to Reduce the Occurrences of Crimes Involving Vehicles.” Submission for the Herman Goldstein Award for Excellence in Problem-Oriented Policing. [Full text]

Edmonton (Canada) Police Service (1994). “Thefts From Automobiles: Prevention Through Education.” Edmonton (Alberta, Canada): Edmonton Police Service. Submission for the Herman Goldstein Award for Excellence in Problem-Oriented Policing. [Full text]

Ethridge, P., and J. Sorensen (1993). “An Evaluation of Citizens Against Auto Theft.” Security Journal 4(1):13-19.

Fresno County (California) Sheriff ’s Department (2002). “Lincoln 21 Vehicle Burglary Project.” Submission for the Herman Goldstein Award for Excellence in Problem-Oriented Policing. [Full text]

Hampshire Constabulary (2004). “Tackling Vehicle Crime in Portsmouth, England.” Submission for the Herman Goldstein Award for Excellence in Problem-Oriented Policing. [Full text]

Harlow, C.W. (1988). Motor Vehicle Theft. U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics. Washington, D.C.

Henderson, C., P. Papagapiou, A. Gains, and J. Knox (2004). Driving Crime Down: Denying Criminals the Use of the Road. London: PA Consulting Group. [Full text]

Henrico County (Virginia) Division of Police (2001). “Crime Watch Light Partners.” Submission for the Herman Goldstein Award for Excellence in Problem-Oriented Policing. Available at www.popcenter.org

Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI). www.iihs.org.

Hinchliffe, M. (1994). Professional Car Thieves: Their Knowledge and Social Structure. London: Home Office Police Research Group.

Honess, T., and M. Maguire (1993). Vehicle Watch and Car Theft: An Evaluation. London: Home Office Research Group. [Full text]

Insurance Information Institute (III). www.iii.org.

Integrated Municipal Provincial Auto Crime Team (2005). “About IMPACT and the Bait Car Program.” Surrey (British Columbia, Canada): IMPACT.

International Association of Chiefs of Police (2005). “California Vehicle Theft Prevention Program.” Alexandria (Virginia): IACP.

Klein, A. (2004). “Air Bags Become Targets of Car Thieves.” Washington Post, Dec. 30, p. T3.

Lancashire Constabulary (2001). “Operation Freedom.” Submission for the Tilley Award for Excellence in Problem-Oriented Policing and Crime Reduction. Hutton (United Kingdom): Author. [Full text]

Light, R., C. Nee, and H. Ingham (1993). Car Theft: The Offender’s Perspective. Home Office Research Study No. 130. London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office. [Full text]

Linden, R., and R. Chaturvedi (2005). “The Need for Comprehensive Crime Prevention Planning: The Case of Motor Vehicle Theft.” Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal Justice 47(2):251-270.

NACRO (1999). A Balanced Approach to Reducing Vehicle Crime and Disorder. London.

Nee, C. (1993). Car Theft: The Offender’s Perspective. London: Home Office Research and Statistics Department.

Newman, G. (2004). “Car Safety and Car Security: An Historical Comparison.” In M.G. Maxfield and R.V. Clarke (eds.), Understanding and Preventing Car Theft. Crime Prevention Studies, volume 17. Monsey (New York): Criminal Justice Press. [Abstract only]

Phillips, C. (1999). "A Review of CCTV Evaluations: Crime Reduction Effects and Attitudes Towards Its Use." In K Painter and N. Tilley (eds.), Surveillance of Public Space: CCTV, Street Lighting and Crime Prevention. Crime Prevention Studies, Vol. 10. Monsey, N.Y.: Criminal Justice Press. [Full text]

Ricks, P. (1991). “The RAT Patrol Rides!” FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin 60(1):20-23. [Full text]

Roach-Anleu, S., L. Mazerolle, and L. Presser (2000). “Third-Party Policing and Insurance: The Case of Market-Based Crime Prevention.” Law and Policy 22:67-87.

Rosenbaum, D. (2002). “Evaluating Multi-Agency Anti-Crime Partnerships: Theory, Design and Measurement Issues.” In N. Tilley (Ed.), Evaluation for Crime Prevention. Crime Prevention Studies, volume 14. Monsey (New York): Criminal Justice Press.

Royal Canadian Mounted Police (1997). “Auto Theft in Williams Lake, BC.” Submission for the Herman Goldstein Award for Excellence in Problem-Oriented Policing. [Full text]

Sallybanks, J. (2001). Assessing the Use of Police Decoy Vehicles. Police Research Series Paper 137. London: Home Office. [Full text] [Briefing Note]

San Diego (California) Police Department (1997). “Coste Verde Vehicle Burglary Project.” Submission for the Herman Goldstein Award for Excellence in Problem-Oriented Policing. [Full text]

Smith, M. (1996). Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design in Parking Facilities. Research in Brief series, National Institute of Justice. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice. [Full text]

Sugg, D. (1998). Motor Projects in England and Wales: An Evaluation. Research Findings No. 81, Research and Statistics Directorate. London: Home Office. [Full text]

Tilley, N. (1993). Understanding Car Parks, Crime and CCTV: Evaluation Lessons from Safer Cities. Crime Prevention Unit series, Paper 42. London: Home Office Police Department.

Vehicle Crime Reduction Action Team (1999). Tackling Vehicle Crime: A Five-Year Strategy. London: Home Office.

Webb, B. (1994). “Steering Column Locks and Motor Vehicle Theft: Evaluations from Three Cities.” In M.G. Maxfield and R.V. Clarke (eds.), Understanding and Preventing Car Theft. Crime Prevention Studies, volume 2. Monsey (New York): Criminal Justice Press. [Full text]

Webb. B., B. Brown, and K. Bennett (1992). Preventing Car Crime in Car Parks. Crime Prevention Unit series, Paper 34. London: Home Office Police Research Group.

Welsh, B., and D. Farrington (2003). “Effects of Improved Street Lighting on Crime: Protocol for a Systematic Review.” Submission to the Campbell Collaboration Crime and Justice Group.

Whitely, Frank, Adrian Gains and Jo Barton (2002). Project Laser: Denying criminals the use of the roads. London: PA Knowledge Limited.

Related POP Projects

Important!

The quality and focus of these submissions vary considerably. With the exception of those submissions selected as winners or finalists, these documents are unedited and are reproduced in the condition in which they were submitted. They may nevertheless contain useful information or may report innovative projects.

Coste Verde Area Project, San Diego Police Department (CA, US), 1997

Crime Watch Light Partnership, Henrico County Division of Police (VA, US), 2001

"Hide It, Lock It, or Lose It," Orange County Sheriff's Department/Dana Point Police Services (CA, US), 2011

Lincoln 21 Vehicle Burglary Project, Fresno County Sheriff's Department (CA, US), 2002

Operation Cobra: Tackling Vehicle Crime in the City of Portsmouth [Goldstein Award Winner], Hampshire Constabulary (Hampshire, UK), 2004

Operation Freedom, Lancashire Constabulary (Lancashire, UK), 2001

Team: Reducing Vehicle Burglaries [Goldstein Award Finalist], Carrollton Police Department (TX, US), 2005

The Forest Hills Boulevard Initiative, Coral Springs Police Department (FL, US), 2003

The Winnipeg Auto Theft Suppression Strategy [Goldstein Award Finalist], Winnipeg Police Service (MB, CA), 2009

Vehicle Ownership Security [Goldstein Award Finalist], California Highway Patrol (CA, US), 2003

Williams Lake Auto Project, Royal Canadian Mounted Police (BC, CA), 1997