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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