Third Place Writing – In-Depth


Auto thefts rise in past decade

Lane County faces a disparity between crime rates and law enforcement resources
By: Ryan Knutson

Police use 29-year-old John Farrell as an example of the motor vehicle theft problem afflicting Lane County.

The Eugene Police Department says he’s been connected to the thefts of 48 cars in the past 11 years, and that his spree of crime is one small example of a dramatic rise in car theft during the past decade: In 1995, there were 703 car thefts reported in Eugene; in 2005 there were 1,712.

Meanwhile, the number of property-crimes detectives in EPD has decreased from eight to seven – which is far fewer than the 28 property-crimes detectives employed in comparable cities.

The disparity between the number of officers and crimes has left the department shorthanded and at capacity: It’s making about the same number of arrests each year – approximately 150 – despite a rising number of cases.

Eugene police aren’t certain why car theft has been increasing, nor do they know why it dropped to 1,116 thefts in 2006. But they do know that while Lane County sits in the 98th percentile for car theft rates in the nation, it also jails its criminals for shorter sentences.

“It’s a lot of speculation (as to car theft rates),” said EPD captain of investigations Chuck Tilby. “We do know that with auto thieves … you can notice the difference in theft rates when they’re incarcerated.”

But they can’t adequately keep criminals locked up, said Chief Deputy for the Lane County District Attorney Alex Gardner. Despite the recent fluctuation in reported car thefts, police say Farrell’s record represents the cycle of crime that is causing Lane County to have one of the highest rates of car theft in the nation: Criminals are caught, released from jail because of a lack of space, then are caught again for similar crimes, only to be released once more. This cycle continues for years until thieves have accumulated enough charges to be sentenced to years in prison, according to Eugene Police Detective Scott Thomas.

“I think criminals learned that the criminal justice system in Lane County is toothless,” said Terry Smith, service improvement analyst for EPD.

While the number of motor vehicle thefts has steadily risen in Oregon during the past decade, the number has decreased nationally. It has dropped 11 percent nationally, but has grown approximately 15 percent in Oregon.

Normally there are high theft rates in cities that contain seaports or are located near U.S. borders, Smith said. Many criminals strip cars of their parts and ship them out of ports, or drive them across the border.

“We (in Lane County) don’t have that excuse,” Smith said.

Most offenders receive sentences that are less than 17 percent of the U.S. average, and most offenders serve only 15 to 40 percent of that, according to EPD.

“If you do absolutely nothing with people committing crimes, they keep doing it,” Gardner said. “And then their friends show up.”

As a result of such low jail terms, Eugene residents like University student Sarah Dodson continue to get their cars stolen.

Dodson left work at noon one Saturday and found her 1991 Toyota Celica gone from the parking lot. With it went her laptop, insurance papers and all her school work.

“I called my mom and started bawling,” she said. She called the police and filed a report.

In most cities across the U.S., that report would be assigned to a detective to investigate. In Eugene, however, there are only enough detectives to investigate 5 percent of property crimes that occur in the city – comparable cities investigate 39 percent, according to a recent study of EPD by the Magellan Research Corporation.

Unless there was an eyewitness who can identify the thief by name, the police just log stolen plate numbers on a list and hope an officer spots it.

Often times, as in the case of Dodson, the car turns up weeks later, either stripped or looted, and the criminals are never caught.

If they are caught, there isn’t enough jail space to keep them incarcerated until sentencing, thus they will be released with a court date, Thomas said. After their release, they “run amuck” and fail to show up to court. More than 30 percent of criminals awaiting sentencing fail to appear, which Gardner said was extraordinarily high.

“As a result we’re averaging close to 900 arrest warrants per month (number from 2004) – but we don’t have cops to go serve the warrants, and even if we did, we don’t have anywhere to house them,” Gardner said.

Like Farrell, these criminals eventually accumulate enough charges to be held in jail until they can be sentenced to prison, Thomas said.

In 1999, police say Farrell was arrested in connection with seven stolen cars, meth and possession of weapons. He went to prison for about five years, according to police.

If Farrell had only stolen cars, though, he wouldn’t have served even half of that time. Police say Farrell was arrested in September 1996 on multiple charges, including two stolen cars, and spent one day in jail. Less than two weeks after his release, he was arrested again in connection with the thefts of two more vehicles and spent one day in jail. This cycle continued for three years and 46 stolen cars before he was put in prison for five years, according to police.

Tracking frequent offenders

The recent upshot of auto theft isn’t the first time the city has seen such increases, Thomas said. In the mid-1990s, reported auto theft doubled from about 400 to 800 annually, he said.

“We tried to figure out ways to make a dent in that problem so we did a task force where we targeted specific repeat offenders,” Thomas said.

The task force included officers from EPD, the Springfield Police Department and the Lane County Sheriff’s Office, and lawyers in the District Attorney’s office “signed on” to help focus on prolific auto thieves. The task force officers worked together to track repeat offenders and monitor each charge the criminals would receive, even if those charges weren’t connected to car theft. That way, when a criminal was caught in one city, the communication between cities would allow a greater chance that the person would be given a longer sentence.

“We literally would, anytime they were involved in any kind of criminal activity, even if it wasn’t stolen cars, we would (get) them in jail and would try to find creative ways to keep these folks in custody to the point of the trial, so if they got convicted they’d get sent off to prison and interrupt that cycle,” said Thomas, who served on the task force.

The cycle that plagues Lane County’s justice system is one of short sentences and early release dates, Chief Deputy DA Gardner said. He said the county needs 1,100 jail beds but only has about 126 available for local criminals.

The task force system was “extremely effective,” Thomas said, but it was dismantled after a short run.

“It became a victim of its own success,” he said. “When auto theft went down, folks who make staffing decisions went, ‘Oh, well we’ve solved the problem.’ So we disbanded the team.”

Without the team, “auto theft returned to the level it was before the task force started,” Thomas said.

An auto theft task force in Portland met a similar fate in December 2006. It was founded in 1995 when Portland saw 9,310 reported car thefts. When it was dismantled, Portland had 4,478 reported auto thefts.

“I don’t think you could see stats from any other unit like the stats you’d see from the auto theft task force,” said Brent Bates, a Portland Police Bureau officer who worked with the task force from beginning to end.

Since it’s disbandment, Portland has seen a 20 percent rise in auto theft on average per month, Bates said.

Competing for attention

While officers agree that the auto theft task force is an effective means of reducing car theft, they also recognize that when more officers focus on auto theft there are fewer focusing on other crimes.

“You can’t put all your eggs in one basket. You have to have enforcement, prevention and intervention, and any weakness in those things results in problems in the other two,” said Tilby of EPD investigations.

“The problem that you have when you’re dealing with a very low amount of resources, is that you don’t have any flexibility where you focus them,” Tilby said. “Because if you rotate resources to focus on auto theft you’re moving attention from (other things).”

And the level of attention certain crimes see depends on funding priorities set at the City Council level.

“It’s always a balancing act because you have the violent crimes, which are always going to be important,” said Ward 8 City Councilor Chris Pryor. “Crimes against people are always going to be at the top of the list because a piece of property is not more important than a person.”

Pryor acknowledged that “if we say that crimes against people are more important, we’re kind of ignoring the fact that the majority of crime is property crime.”

Pryor said the City Council can’t mandate that the police utilize an auto theft task force, but they can set crime priorities and increase spending on public safety.

“It is not the role of a city councilor to start getting into the actual operations of how (the police) should work,” Pryor said.

John Brown, who has served on the EPD Police Commission for about eight years, said balancing the priorities of an understaffed department is difficult.

“Personally, I think the focus should be against our vulnerable community,” Brown said. “If you’re a cop, will you respond to a guy who’s beating the crap out of his wife or someone who is stealing a car?”

In the District Attorney’s office, prosecutors are faced with similar dilemmas. That office had 29 lawyers in 1981, and now they have 22, Gardner said.

“If we would have just kept even with population growth, we’d have 36 lawyers,” Gardner said. “If we kept even with the case load, we’d have 80 or 90. To be at 22 positions in criminal prosecution is grossly understaffed.”

Where it leaves us

Most in the EPD or Lane County District Attorney’s office will say the entire justice system in Lane County needs to be revamped with more funding.

“You fix the problem by either making it a higher priority or finding more money,” Gardner said. “Those are the only two choices.”

In EPD, detective Thomas mirrored Gardner’s sentiments.

“One of the arguments that I hear all the time is that it costs so much to incarcerate someone,” Thomas said. “My response is you know the average meth user out there in a year is going to do a quarter million dollars in property crimes to support their habit. Which is worse?

“It’s up to the public to decide whether they want to do something about it,” Thomas said.

In an e-mail, Gardner wrote, “That’s what happens when you have few cops, few DAs, light sentencing, little jail space, few (parole officers), little mental health, little drug treatment, LOTS of drug and property crime, and increasing gang presence and NO meaningful consequences. It’s taken us twenty-five years to get to this point. It’s going to take a while to dig out – but we’re going to keep doing our best with whatever resources we have left.”

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