by Todd Keister
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.
† 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.
Theft from parked cars† is 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.
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.
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|
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.
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
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).
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.
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
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:
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:
† 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).
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.
†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).
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:
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.)
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.
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:
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
† 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.
† 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.
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.
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
† Henrico County, Virginia police (2001) coordinated a program in which homeowners shared the costs of additional street lighting to deter thefts from cars.
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
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
† 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.
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.
† 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.
† 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:
†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.
Neighborhood Watch signs are ubiquitous in many suburban areas and are generally ineffective, as suggested by the graffiti on the sign. Credit: Todd Keister
Some examples of diversion programs aimed at young auto thieves are:
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.
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]
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|
|#||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|
|#||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|
|#||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|
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Whitely, Frank, Adrian Gains and Jo Barton (2002). Project Laser: Denying criminals the use of the roads. London: PA Knowledge Limited.
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
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