More about vehicle thefts – highlights from our monthly meeting

Here’s a quick recap of our May 27th West Seattle Block Watch Captains’ Network monthly meeting which focused on vehicle thefts. Our guest speaker, Detective Hiro Yamashita from the SPD Auto Theft Squad, began with a humorous explanation of what his job involves (lots of paperwork), as opposed to what others may think it involves (CSI drama).  He then provided an overview of the Auto Theft Squad, which surprisingly is quite small; just 4 Detectives, 1 Sergeant, and 1 Administrative Assistant. Detective Yamashita has been on the squad for 22 years.

Seattle Police Detective Hiro Yamashita speaking about auto theft at the West Seattle Block Watch Captains' Network meeting on May 27th

Seattle Police Detective Hiro Yamashita at the West Seattle Block Watch Captains’ Network meeting

We posed the question earlier about how West Seattle compares to other communities; he answered this with the following slide.

Auto thefts by precinct, YTD 2014

Auto thefts by precinct, YTD 2014

As you can see, West Seattle auto thefts are trending downward from where they were a year ago. Currently the SW Precinct is averaging 42 per month, far fewer than the other precincts! Other areas of the city are up significantly; the North Precinct is averaging 194 thefts per month. Detective Yamashita added that nationally the greater Seattle area is not ranked in the top 10; however, Yakima and Spokane are.

His presentation focused next on auto theft trends, including some of the methods that thieves currently use.

The most popular targets are 1994-1996 Honda Accord, Honda Civic, and Subaru Legacy vehicles. Newer models have keys with computer chips, which make them more difficult to steal.

The well-known TV image of a thief hotwiring a vehicle is dated; these days, thieves use “jiggler” keys, “bump” keys or similar tools to steal vehicles; they can order these online for less than $25 or make them as shown in the photo below.

Improvised vehicle theft tools

Improvised vehicle theft tools

Many times, thieves don’t need to go to that trouble. They may steal vehicle keys during burglaries or car prowls; they may find keys dropped in parking lots, then locate the vehicle nearby; or they may find keys left in ignitions by workers on construction sites (so co-workers can move the vehicle if Parking Enforcement arrives). Thieves may even find vehicle engines running while cars are left momentarily to “warm up” or while the driver leaves the vehicle unattended to get something.

Detective Yamashita stated that most vehicle thefts in our area are driven by drug use. Stolen vehicles are often used briefly by thieves to commit other crimes such as burglaries or mail theft. To lessen the chances of being caught, vehicle thieves usually abandon the vehicle after a short time and steal another. These vehicles typically contain discarded mail and other stolen items when they are recovered. He reiterated that the Subaru Legacy station wagon is very popular because it has more room for cargo. Seattle Police recovered one that contained 17 stolen bicycles (disassembled).

One current trend is that police now see more license plate thefts or the swapping of license plates. Stolen plates are used by thieves of stolen vehicles now that police cars are equipped with “ALPR”, Automated License Plate Recognition cameras, that scan car license plates to see if they have been reported stolen. Sometimes owners whose plates have been stolen or swapped will not notice, so those thefts aren’t reported in a timely fashion and vehicle thieves are able to avoid detection using “legitimate” plates on stolen vehicles.

The Auto Theft Squad continues to see the theft of vehicles containing visible valuables. Sometimes stolen vehicles are found just a few blocks away, so the thieves can remove items they want out of view of neighbors or the owners. He noted that half of the vehicles stolen from West Seattle are recovered here.

Detective Yamashita explained that his department faces some constraints in investigating vehicle thefts. They must screen cases per Seattle Police Department protocol to ensure the vehicle has indeed been stolen. Sometimes people claim vehicles are stolen in order to collect insurance. There are also disputes regarding ownership of vehicles; if relationships have changed since the vehicle was purchased, one of the parties (i.e parents/children, ex spouses, unmarried couples) may report it stolen. Screenings can take upwards of one hour per case, some can become very time-consuming.

King County Prosecuting Attorney (KCPA) guidelines require that there be “evidence of theft” which can be problematic in those instances where theft suspects have had keys and there was no obvious damage from the break-in and no fingerprints in the vehicle.

Vehicle theft suspects also have a loophole if they claim that someone loaned them the vehicle if stopped and questioned by police; police may not be able to prove that the suspect was indeed the person who actually stole the vehicle even though there is circumstantial evidence. Detective Yamashita noted that in these types of cases his team creates a “Master Case” so that any subsequent incidents in which the person is caught in a stolen vehicle can be linked together into a single and stronger case against the suspect.

He noted that his team is allowed a maximum of 3 months to resolve each case, which is not always adequate; there is a backlog of many overdue cases. Unfortunately, there is yet no single comprehensive database, so suspects who span multiple geographic areas or who commit various types of crimes (not just vehicle theft) may have records in multiple places; this makes it more time-consuming to investigate each suspect and incident.

Detective Yamashita spoke highly of the Major Crimes Task Force which has 5 to 12 additional detectives that also help resolve vehicle theft cases. The Auto Theft Squad also partners with Burglary Theft Squads and outside agencies. They share information via Criminal Information Bulletins, Homicide Investigation Tracking (HITS, State Attorney General), and the Burglary Auto Theft (BAT) list.

He wrapped up his presentation with some observations about things that are, and aren’t, effective. He recommends that vehicle owners install hidden ignition kill switches or fuel cut-off switches; these don’t allow thieves to start and steal a vehicle and are relatively inexpensive. Systems such as LoJack, which track vehicles as soon as they are reported stolen, generally result in recovery within a short timeframe (30 minutes); although these cost approximately $600 to purchase, there are no additional monthly fees.

We asked earlier about the use of Bait Cars by Seattle Police, (these work in a similar way to these systems above and have been successful in other cities). Detective Yamashita explained that when SPD did employ Bait Cars, very few were ever stolen…so they scaled back the program.

What can we do to deter or prevent vehicle thefts? The two most obvious things (but not everyone does them) are to leave nothing of value visible and be diligent about keeping your vehicle locked. He added jokingly that it also helps not to own the most popular types of stolen cars. Asked whether a steering wheel club is a useful deterrent, his opinion is that it has limited effectiveness, as many thieves know how to remove them.

Officer Jon Kiehn, from the SW Precinct Community Police Team, noted the importance of the CPTED (Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design) principles (techniques to make your property less of a target). This includes use of lighting, making sure your vehicle is visible to yourself/neighbors so that someone who might be up to no good would worry about being seen or heard.

Detective Yamashita’s PowerPoint presentation is here: Detective-Hiro-Yamashita-auto-theft-slidedeck.

As well, here is short interview with Detective Yamashita and me (Karen Berge) that Channel 13 news did prior to the meeting.


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Upcoming events!

Here’s another quick rundown of events on our calendar!

June 21, Saturday: Morgan Junction Community Festival. We’ll be among the businesses and community organizations there.

June 24, Tuesday: Our June monthly WSBWCN meeting, which will be our final meeting before a summer hiatus. The main topic will be gang activity. Full agenda to come as the date gets closer.

July 11- 13, Friday – Sunday:  West Seattle Summer Fest 2014. Will post more details once we know which days or times we’ll be there.

August 5th, Tuesday:  National Night Out Against Crime. Time to have a party with your neighbors and talk about safety and preparedness!

August 9th, Saturday: Delridge Day. We’ll be among the businesses and community organizations.

Date TBD:  SW Precinct Picnic. We plan to have an informational table again this year.

We’ll continue to add events throughout the summer…so check back!



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Reminder: our monthly meeting is tonight…please join us!

As we noted before the holiday weekend, our main discussion topic this month will be vehicle theft; our special guest will be Detective Hiro Yamashita from the Seattle Police Department auto theft squad.

Scroll below to our previous posting or click here for the full agenda and other meeting details.


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New edition of the SPD community safety newsletter is here!

May 2014 Seattle Police Department community newsletter, p 1 of 2

May 2014 Seattle Police Department community newsletter, p 1 of 2

May 2014 Seattle Police Department community newsletter, p 2 of 2

May 2014 Seattle Police Department community newsletter, p 2 of 2

This week, we received a new edition of the Seattle Police Department newsletter from  Mark Solomon, the Crime Prevention Coordinator for the SW and South Police Precincts. We’ve included it below in both .pdf and .jpg format.

Community Safety newsletter (in .pdf format):
Seattle Police Email Newsletter127, May 2014

If your neighborhood doesn’t yet have a Block Watch, Mark is your contact for helping you get started! You’ll find his contact info and more information about SPD Crime Prevention Coordinators here.

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Frustrated or concerned about car thefts and prowls? Join us!

Join us Tuesday, May 27th, after the holiday weekend, for our monthly meeting!


Our main discussion topic will be auto theft, again. Is there anything else to be done about it?  Is it getting worse or getting better? How bad is it in West Seattle as compared to other neighborhoods? Is there anything we can learn from other cities?

Detective Hiro Yamashita from the Seattle Police Department auto theft squad, as well as SW Precinct officers/leadership will be on hand to delve deeper into this issue. Bring your questions, concerns and ideas; come learn about SPD’s plans to tackle this issue!

Meeting schedule (Come early, stay late!)

Tuesday, May 27th, 2014, 6:30-8 PM

SW Police Precinct, 2300 SW Webster Street (at Delridge Ave SW, next to Home Depot)

6:00-6:30        Arrive early for light snacks, socializing and networking with each other while we set up the room.

6:30-7:00        Introductions, announcements, concerns, sharing ideas.

7:00-8:00        Detective Hiro Yamashita from the SPD auto theft squad.

8:00-8:30        Feel free to stay after the meeting to continue your discussions.

Everyone is welcome, even if you aren’t a Block Watch Captain!  RSVP is appreciated, but not necessary to attend.  You can email us at or phone us at 206-424-0040.

Hope to see you there!  

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Busy time of year!

Here’s a quick rundown of our upcoming events!

May 18th (tomorrow): Our next outreach event is the Alki Summer Streets Festival.  We’ll be there starting at 11 AM. Hope you’ll stop by! While supplies last, we have free coloring books for kids and great informational materials for adults.

May 27th, Tuesday: Our monthly WSBWCN meeting, 6:30 to 8 PM at the SW Police Precinct.  The main topic will be car theft. We’ll post a more detailed agenda here soon.

June 21, Saturday: Morgan Junction Community Festival. We’ll be among the businesses and community organizations there.

June 24, Tuesday: Our June monthly WSBWCN meeting; the main topic will be gang activity. Agenda to come.

We’ll also be at community events later in the summer…so check back!



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Learn about Neighborhood Matching Funds! Workshop tonight!

The Neighborhood Matching Fund, a program of Seattle Department of Neighborhoods, is hosting the second of two workshops tonight for those interested in applying to the Small and Simple Projects Fund this June. The Small and Simple Projects Fund provides matching awards of up to $25,000 to neighborhood groups and community organizations for community-building projects.

Workshop details:

Thursday, May 15; 6:00 – 8:00 PM
Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute, 104 17th Avenue South, 98144

At the workshop you will get an overview of the Neighborhood Matching Fund, the qualities of a good project, and the application process and requirements. To RSVP call 206-733-9916 or go online at

The deadline for applications is Monday, June 2 at 5:00 PM, but make sure to register early on their web-based application system. There will be one more opportunity to apply to this fund on October 6.

Neighborhood Matching Funds SAS grant poster

Neighborhood Matching Funds SAS grant poster

2014 NMF SAS Workshop Poster, .pdf format

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