Robert Smith

Although the number of auto thefts in Austin has risen by 5 percent over the past year, police have recovered more cars from the thefts, according to APD Sgt. Robert Smith. 

Austin Police Department statistics show 1,611 cars have been stolen so far this year, compared to 1,498 in the first eight months of 2013. Despite the increase in thefts, Smith said APD has recovered more cars than last year. APD recovered 970 of 1,498 cars stolen in 2013, and while they recovered 1,028 of 1,611 in 2014, the rate of recovery is currently lower.

According to Smith, vehicles are more likely to be stolen or broken into over the summer.

“July and August are when we typically see a spike in the number of cars being stolen,” Smith said. “Those are the hottest months, so more people are traveling and leaving their cars unattended.” 

Smith said APD has asked for more detectives on the auto theft unit to cope with the increasing number of thefts and burglaries. According to APD’s budget plan, the unit currently has 10 detectives that handle an average of 340 auto theft cases per month.  

“City Council has decided to give us two more detectives, but we could use more,” Smith said. 

Smith attributes the increased recovery to policing efforts and an awareness campaign called “Watch Your Car,” which launched in July to raise awareness of auto thefts and burglaries. 

Vehicles are rarely stolen on campus, according to UTPD crime statistics. UTPD spokeswoman Cindy Posey said UT police did not receive any stolen vehicle reports in August. Last year, only eight auto thefts were reported to UTPD. 

Vehicle theft and break-ins are more frequent just outside of campus, with seven auto thefts reported in West Campus last month, according to APD’s incident database. Smith said leaving keys inside the vehicle is one of the most common mistakes people make before their cars are stolen
or burglarized.

“People leave their keys in their cars … and they’ll leave their iPods or electronics out in plain view, so then their cars get burglarized or stolen,” Smith said. “It’s a crime of opportunity.”

Photo Credit: Amy Zhang | Daily Texan Staff

The Austin Police Department Auto Theft Interdiction Project launched the “Watch Your Car” campaign this July to bring awareness to the heightened risk of car thefts and burglaries in the month of July. 

APD Sgt. Robert Smith said he thinks the high July rate can be attributed to so many people traveling during summer months and leaving their cars unattended while on vacation. In Austin, 978 vehicles were burglarized and 165 stolen in July 2013. Twenty-four of the burglaries and thefts occured in West Campus.

According to the APD crime search website, 43 vehicles were burglarized in the West Campus and North Campus areas over the past 30 days. West Campus and North Campus were the hardest hit in the area, according to the Central Austin Community Development Corporation.

Smith also said 50 percent of break-ins occur because thieves find hidden keys.

“Usually they leave their own keys in their own cars,” Smith said. “It’s hard to believe. The second most expensive thing you ever buy. And you leave your keys inside.”

According to the Auto Theft Interdiction Project, the most frequently stolen car in Austin in 2013 was the Honda Accord.

Smith said most stolen cars are taken for joy rides and later recovered. As for stolen trucks, they are often used for human smuggling and usually found down south, completely demolished. When vehicles are burglarized, Smith said it is usually because owners leave valuables in plain sight.

Journalism senior Jessica Brown said her car was burglarized last July in the parking lot of her North Austin apartment complex. Brown said the thief broke the back window and stole several shopping bags of clothing that were in plain view.

“The funny thing is I was going to donate those clothes to Buffalo Exchange,” Brown said. “If they wanted them, they could have just had them.”

Smith said large apartment complexes are magnets for burglars.

On campus, 43 vehicles were burglarized and 8 stolen in 2013. Although these numbers are not particularly higher than those of other areas of Austin, Gonzalo Gonzalez, UTPD patrol division captain, said he still believes it is important for students to practice safety measures. UTPD educates incoming freshman at summer orientation about how to best protect themselves and their property.

Meanwhile, the APD Auto Theft Interdiction Project is raising awareness with mobile billboards on taxicabs throughout the city. The department will also offer free VIN-etching services periodically this July, putting a small imprint of the vehicle’s VIN number on each window.

“With the VIN etching, it’s impossible to sell some of the parts, and that detracts thieves,” Smith said.

Photo Credit: Stephanie Vanicek | Daily Texan Staff

The Austin Police Department hopes to receive over $600,000 from the Texas Auto Burglary and Theft Prevention Authority — also known as ABTPA — to fund its Auto Theft Interdiction Project, which has been a part of the agency for 16 years.

Austin City Council authorized the department’s application for the funds, which are allocated by the ABTPA through auto insurance fees, in its meeting Thursday. The department depends on the grant to fund initiatives such as the Vehicle Identification Number etching program, according to APD Sgt. Robert Smith.

“If it weren’t for the Auto Burglary and Theft Prevention Authority, there would be no VIN etching,” Smith said. “Maybe cities and counties would pitch in for it, but, specifically, for the past 16 years, the authority has paid for VIN etching and murals on the side of buildings and billboards — anything to get folks to realize that the power to prevent auto thefts and burglaries is really on them more than it is on us.”

Any law enforcement agency within the state can apply for the grant, according to Smith.

The authority will notify grant applicants about the status of their requests in June. Smith said the department does not expect to receive the exact amount of money it applied for.

“What actually gets granted to us is probably going to be completely different,” Smith said. “It’s like going to college and requesting a grant from someone — you’re going to request $10,000, but they’re only going to give you $1,000 because they have so many other people to give to and so few resources.”

Charles Caldwell, director of ABTPA, said auto theft rates are a factor in the distribution of grants.

“We look at a number of items that they submit to us through a grant application,” Caldwell said. “It’s based on the amount of money that we have available, what their activities are and what the auto theft rate is. … We have a matrix of things we look at in order to make that determination.”

Fewer auto thefts occurred in Austin than in Dallas and San Antonio in the first three months of 2014. The difference between the number of auto thefts per capita in the four largest Texas cities — Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and Austin — only differ by one tenth of a percent.

Smith said grant funds also pay for detective salaries and equipment used to investigate auto thefts or burglaries.

“How much money we need is going to vary each year, and it’s going to vary between agencies,” Smith said. “Personnel and the projects that we have dictate how much we ask for.”

The City pledged to match approximately 25 percent of the amount granted by the ABTPA.

“The match is the City’s commitment to saying, ‘We’re dedicated in this effort just as much as you are,’” Smith said.

APD officer Jermaine Kilgore demonstrates how to use the current license plate database inside a patrol car Tuesday.

Mengwen Cao | Daily Texan staff

The Austin Police Department is in the market for new license plate readers after City Council allocated new funds for investment in the technology, according to APD Sgt. Robert Smith.

APD used its previous plate scanners from 2010 until 2012, when the department’s former vendor went out of business. Smith, who works in the Auto Theft Unit, said the readers are primarily used to locate and recover stolen vehicles.

“It’s a huge asset in finding stolen vehicles because the operators don’t even have to pay attention,” Smith said. “They just drive around, and the cameras and computers do all of the work. When a stolen car is found, it directs the officer to where it’s at, and the vehicle can be recovered.”

License plate readers are devices installed in select patrol cars and in areas of the city where auto theft rates are highest. The reader scans and photographs license plates and then feeds the plate information to a computer inside the patrol car.

“The computer is connected to the license plate database, and that information is just disseminated to a server,” Smith said. “If the plate of a stolen car is detected, it’ll tell you which car it is and where it was when it was found, and that allows any officer that’s working the equipment to find the stolen vehicle and recover it for a victim.”

Smith said the department will only be able to afford a few scanners.

“They’re very expensive units,” Smith said. “We wouldn’t have the funds to put them on all of the patrol cars. What we would do is we would put them in areas where most cars are either stolen or recovered, and then we would put them on probably only one or two cars. They’re not only expensive to buy, but they’re expensive to run.”

According to Genetec, a company with its own license plate recognition system, the devices are capable of reading up to 5,000 plates per minute and capturing license plates at speeds of up to 200 mph.

The scanners detect stolen vehicles based on information in the Texas Crime Information Center, where reported stolen vehicles’ license plate data are stored.

“When someone calls the police department and reports their vehicle stolen, that [license plate] information gets put into what’s called the TCIC database, which is a national crime information center,” Smith said. “The license plate reader taps directly into that, and, if there’s a match, it will tell you where the vehicle is.”

APD has not yet decided on a specific vendor from which to purchase its new readers, according to Smith.

“We just got money for them,” Smith said. “We have to [find] out what we need and find out what’s out there, get vendors to tell us what they have and what they can offer us.”