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a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

Takoma Park: stolen cars rarely noted in other crime reports

Posted by Thomas Nephew on April 1st, 2009

In justifying their grant application for a license plate scanner last year, the Takoma Park Police Department wrote:

The City of Takoma Park experiences on average 165 stolen auto incidents each year.  It also has experienced 75 robberies, 142 burglaries, and over 500 larcenies each year on average over the last ten years.  In many of these cases it has been learned that the perpetrators frequently will travel to and from the crime scene in a stolen motor vehicle.


For a separate web page view of this workbook, click here.

But Takoma Park Police crime statistics do not seem to bear out a need for added surveillance technology to deal with these problems. First, the 2008 annual report, released in late January, states on page 1 that that there were 99 auto thefts in Takoma Park in 2008 — down 24% from the 130 recorded in 2007.

And while the annual report doesn’t provide the kind of detail that would be needed, a look at fourteen months worth of TPPD Police Bulletins suggests that known stolen vehicles are involved in only a small proportion of crimes: only 3.5% of assaults (2 out of 57), only 6.4% of robberies, and less than 2% of other crimes (excluding stolen cars and 5 carjackings) are reported to have involved the criminals use of a stolen car.

One reason this may be worth mentioning is because I suspect more sensational cases inevitably crowd out the less interesting ones in our memories as time goes on. Thus, someone I’ve corresponded with about this wrote to me, “In the written details of the crime advisories, almost every street robbery involves someone exiting a car and robbing someone and getting back into the car, or a robbery occurring and the robber fleeing to a get away car.”

As best as I can tell, this just isn’t so. While cases involving robberies and stolen cars are certainly reported to happen now and then, a more typical reported case sounds like this:

On June 25, 2008, at approximately 11:20 p.m., Takoma Park Police responded to Columbia Avenue at Hickory Avenue for reports of a citizen armed robbery. Two (2) victims were walking home when they were approached by a black male, 15-20 years of age, approximately 5’8 – 5’10, 130-135 pounds, wearing a black hoodie with the sleeves cut off, shiny work-out type pants, black high top shoes and armed with a handgun. The suspect demanded property and then was joined by six (6) other suspects. Property was taken and one of the victims was assaulted, but not seriously injured. The suspects fled on foot down Columbia Avenue towards Poplar Avenue. Investigation continues under case #08037160. Anyone with information about this crime is asked to please call us at 301.270.1100.

…in that encounters and escapes are more often reported to be on foot. Obviously, many criminals also get away in cars. But few of those cars appear to be stolen, and license plate information doesn’t appear to be available in most cases; if so, license plate scanners will often have little value in apprehending suspects for robbery or assault.

It may be that the police bulletins themselves do not say all that they might, either for the sake of not going beyond the established facts at the time, or in order not to reveal all that is known.  Regarding the first possibility, these data are all the rest of us have to go on, no matter that “in many of these cases” criminals “will frequently” use a stolen vehicle — to use the elastic language of the grant application (and of grant applications everywhere).  Regarding the latter possibility, the bulletins do occasionally reveal that a criminal’s vehicle was stolen (as well as partial or full tag information) so that there doesn’t seem to be a policy against doing so. Obviously, much is unknown about how criminals get to and from the scenes of their Takoma Park crimes. But that’s a very different thing than believing “almost every street robbery” involves a stolen car as a getaway vehicle.

Taken together — falling stolen car rates, the rarity of stolen cars being reported as approach and getaway vehicles for additional crimes — the case for a $27,000 scanner might seem harder to make, and the case for cheaper and less problematic countermeasures might seem stronger.  But last November — about a month before announcing the scanner grant — the Takoma Park Police Department announced that less surveillance-oriented measures were a thing of the past: “The City of Takoma Park Police Department no longer gives away steering wheel locks due to cost issues. However, many auto parts stores sell steering wheel locks which are inexpensive.”

For my part, I wish they’d stuck with the steering wheel lock program — and wonder what the cost issues could be with something described as inexpensive in the next sentence.  I’d hope the grant-givers would be as receptive to that as to questionable, automated surveillance technology.

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NOTES ON METHODS: My data source is the TPPD’s Police Bulletin (a collection of crime advisories, weekly crime reports, and press releases) for 2008 and the first 2 months of 2009.  I attempted to accurately classify each incident by whether the criminal was on foot, in a vehicle, in a stolen vehicle, used unknown means of movement, or did not fit any of those categories (e.g, arrested at home). I was particularly concerned to neither double-count nor overlook robbery, assault, carjacking, and stolen vehicle incidents. However, the data are incomplete for “other” crimes — I didn’t record vandalism incidents, and I didn’t record infrequent crimes like mail fraud or counterfeiting(!).   More importantly, I was not consistent in recording burglaries (classified as “other”) because there was almost invariably no information about the criminal’s means of transportation.  However, I did try to consistently record burglaries when a suspect was seen either leaving on foot or by vehicle, and I often recorded ones assigned a public case number (of the form “#08001234” or “#09005678”).  Thus, I believe the reported stolen car, vehicle, and ‘fled on foot’ percentages for “other” crimes are likely to be upper bounds. In arrests of persons using a vehicle, I judged the vehicle not stolen if the person was not charged with motor vehicle theft or a similar charge.

When multiple charges were filed in an arrest, I chose the most serious one corresponding to the major categories I was interested in. “Carjacking” seemed a hybrid of robbery, assault, and stolen vehicle, but since there were ‘only’ 5 such crimes (by my count), counting them separately has a minor impact on the qualitative results.

Readers are welcome to examine the “data” worksheet of the linked workbook and judge for themselves whether I’ve correctly classified each incident I’ve recorded; each one is linked to its corresponding Police Bulletin entry.  Fields about “license plate known,” “stolen vehicle recovered,” and “later arrest” were added midway through this effort; I don’t consider those data to be very solid yet and don’t discuss them in this post.

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EDIT, 4/4: “But few of those cars…for robbery or assault” text above for “but it appears that license plate information isn’t available in most cases — meaning that license plate scanners would have no value in those cases.”

2 Responses to “Takoma Park: stolen cars rarely noted in other crime reports”

  1. RobertNAtl Says:

    Hey! We have those scanner things down here, too! Hope this link works:

    http://www.ajc.com/metro/content/metro/northfulton/stories/2009/03/20/license_plate_scanner.html

  2. Thomas Nephew Says:

    “The license-plate reader is not a Big Brother-type surveillance device, George said. It scans and discards the license tags on cars that have no warrants on them, hanging only on to wanted plates in the police database. Even if it did store all the license plates it encountered, the license-plate reader still would not be an invasion of privacy, he said. “You have no expectation of privacy on a public road,” George said. “I don’t want us to be Big Brother.””

    Got all that? It’s not Big Brother, but even if it was, it wouldn’t be, ’cause “George” (first name basis right away) doesn’t think you have expectation of privacy, not that he wants to be Big Brother. Nice that it’s described as scanning and discarding — but if so, that’s a reversible policy decision, not some kind of innate feature of license plate scanners.

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