Wednesday, July 30, 2008

County Council: Tell Us More About Bait Cars

At a 7/28/08 work session of the County Council’s Public Safety Committee, Chairman Phil Andrews and committee members Marc Elrich and Don Praisner asked the Montgomery County Police Department for more information on successful bait car programs. Car thieves everywhere shuddered at the news.

Regular readers will remember how I declared war against car thieves after my neighbor’s car was stolen last fall. In researching the best practices for suppressing the lurking, squealing thieves, I quickly found British Columbia’s amazing website. British Columbia is one of dozens of jurisdictions in the U.S. and Canada that employs large, aggressive bait car programs to capture and deter car thieves. When a thief breaks into the bait car, its cameras begin recording, its GPS device activates and an alarm is triggered at police headquarters. The police then swoop in to capture the now-pitiful criminal and the video is posted on the Internet and other media outlets. The combined effect of apprehension, deterrence and the massive media campaigns that accompany these programs have produced double-digit declines in theft in British Columbia, Minneapolis, Dallas, Stanislaus County in California and other jurisdictions. Arlington County, Virginia reports that bait cars have helped cut its car theft totals to the lowest levels since 1965. Best of all, many bait car programs are paid in whole or in part by insurance companies. We have combined all of this information and more in the heavily-demanded Bait Car Bible available here.

The Public Safety Committee interviewed Acting Assistant Police Chief Wayne Jerman. Jerman said that Montgomery County purchased two bait cars in 2004: a 1991 Toyota Corolla and a 1995 Honda. Neither proved desirable to the car thieves, who have only committed one theft and one break-in on the cars over the past four years. Unlike other jurisdictions, the county does not promote the cars. (British Columbia’s famous slogan, “Steal a Bait Car. Go to Jail,” has been the centerpiece of its award-winning “advertising campaign.”) Jerman described the bait car programs in both Prince George’s County and Fairfax County as “successful” but did not have statistics on their performance.

Council Members Don Praiser (left) and Marc Elrich.

Chairman Andrews noted that Montgomery County experiences roughly 2,500 car thefts per year, much lower than in Prince George’s County (where it is 12,000 per year) but still, in his words, “a high plateau.” Mr. Andrews stated that vehicle-related thefts were the number one category of crime in Montgomery and handed out a reported crime list from the 7/17/08 Washington Post. Of the 120 Montgomery County crimes in that report, 56 were car thefts or car break-ins. Mr. Andrews told the Assistant Chief, “It seems to me we need to do more in this area, especially in those parts of the county where it is a problem.” He asked Jerman what more could be done to have a greater impact on car thefts.

Assistant Chief Jerman admitted that the police could use more bait cars, stating, “Two is not enough.” But he described them as “labor-intensive,” saying that each needed three officers – two to drive it to the drop-off point and another to monitor it from headquarters. The auto theft unit’s nine investigators together record a 70% recovery rate of stolen cars (but not the valuables inside), which everyone agrees is a good performance. But if the thieves were deterred from stealing the cars in the first place, how much more effective could the investigators be?

Public Safety Committee Chairman Phil Andrews.

Mr. Andrews then put his finger on the key issue: why have bait car programs worked so well in other places? Noting that British Columbia has used its program to cut its auto thefts from 26,000 in fiscal 2004 to 17,000 in fiscal 2007 – a decline of 35% – he told Jerman, “What I want to get is more details on how they do it... What have they done that has been so successful?” Mr. Andrews specifically asked for information on how funding is collected from insurance companies, how much costs are paid by the police themselves and how successful jurisdictions deploy the cars. Assistant Chief Jerman agreed to find out and the Public Safety Committee will reconvene in the fall.

It’s clear that the County Council, and Phil Andrews in particular, have heard us and are responding to our blockbuster letter from last fall. We will see whether the police believe that bait cars can work in Montgomery County. But if they can achieve the same success that other jurisdictions have seen, the county’s citizens will benefit in two ways:

1. The most common type of crime in the county will be seriously reduced.
2. Over the long run, the police may then be able to redeploy their resources to more serious problems, like home burglaries and violent crime.

As for the sniveling car thieves, I have one message for you: enjoy yourselves while you can because the good times won’t last forever. As our friends in British Columbia say:


Update: The Gazette's coverage, which includes statistics on car thefts and break-ins, is here.

Update 2: Here's an article from the Washington Post detailing the successful use of a bait car by D.C. police in March.

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