Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Metro drivers hold keys to declining vehicle thefts

Police say 8% drop in '07 came despite careless motorists By KATE HOWARD • Staff Writer (Tennessean) • February 26, 2008 Car thefts dropped more than 8 percent in Nashville last year to the lowest rate in the city's history. About 2,800 cars were reported stolen in 2007, the lowest raw number since 1989. Police credit the drop to more bait car operations, the closing of some notorious chop shops and more manpower. Slowing their progress, though, is a combination of volunteer victims and opportunist criminals. It took little effort to make off with roughly half of all the cars stolen last year. The keys were inside. "After the fact is a bad time for shoulda-coulda-wouldas," said Sgt. Billy Smith, who supervises Metro's auto theft unit. "Some people are thieves all their lives, and still some wouldn't be if the opportunity wasn't there." When Metro launched its "Park Smart!" program in 2000 to educate the public about taking their keys with them, about 25 percent of cars were easy targets. That percentage has since doubled. Smith said police see most of the thefts at convenience stores or grocery stores, where people run in for one quick purchase. In very hot or cold weather, those who leave their cars running also are targets. To add insult to injury, drivers whose cars are snatched may face further penalties from their insurance companies. Leaving keys in the car is the easiest way to pull off an insurance fraud, said Julie Pulliam of the American Insurance Association. So if nothing else, the filling of claims may be delayed while insurance companies investigate. And when it comes time to renew a policy, insurance companies may opt out. "Even if it's not fraud, and the claim is paid, the insurance company is going to probably think twice about renewing your coverage because of your apparent carelessness or forgetfulness," Pulliam said. As for the other half of last year's car thefts, Smith said, older cars, which are more common on the road, are popular targets of thieves because of their parts. The 37211 ZIP code in south Nashville topped the list with 304 cars reported stolen last year. Also high on the list were the Brick Church Pike area, Antioch, Madison and downtown Nashville. Bait cars abound The auto theft unit has plenty of flashy cars, loaded with GPS equipment, to use as bait when a rash of car thefts breaks out. They also keep a bait fleet that includes golf carts, boats and riding lawnmowers to use wherever problem thefts are occurring. Smith said they sometimes put up a sign in the lot announcing their sting operation. He's not surprised when attempts are still made. "Many of them see the sign and say, 'Nah. The police don't do that,' " Smith said. The bait cars and detectives' undercover vehicles are provided by the National Insurance Crime Bureau, a nonprofit organization that gives assistance and funding for car theft prevention programs. Jimmy Carl Ball Sr., senior special agent with the bureau, said he communicates daily with Metro detectives to discuss emerging trends. "In that area, we try to provide the police with cars similar to the ones that they're stealing in the streets," Ball said. Once the cars have been stolen, they're quickly retrieved by officers waiting nearby. For regular street cars, the process can be much more complicated, since plundered vehicles can end up abandoned, stripped for parts by chop shops or at the bottom of the Cumberland River. Jim Stiles has lived more than 35 years along Bill Creek, where Metro's auto theft detectives and a diver spent an afternoon this month searching for the remnants of stolen cars. Walking his dogs along the railroad tracks that pass over the creek, Stiles pointed to the vacant yard of his neighbor on Lisa Lane, where Metro detectives found the remnants of a chop shop. Six stolen vehicles were found on the property after police arrested a friend of the property owner's grandson for stripping cars to sell parts. Another man used other parts to enhance cars for illegal street racing, police said. The end of the lot is not far from an opening on the creek's bank, where detectives expected to find shells of dumped cars. "People come in here all hours, day and night," Stiles said. "I try to pay no attention, but I know what they're doing." Smith and his unit never did find the Hondas they expected to find from the chop shop, but they came upon another vehicle that day in the Cumberland River off Pennington Bend. The Chevy Cavalier was beaten up but did not seem to have been stripped for parts. They pulled it from the river and discovered it had been reported stolen in North Carolina. The keys were inside.

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