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Auto thefts may rise to put area back on top
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During the latter part of 2009 and into the spring of 2010, auto theft was on the decline, giving hope that the multi-year trend of increasing auto thefts in this county had reversed. Unfortunately, the theft pattern is now back in the growth mode, which will likely position Stanislaus County, once again, as the nation's auto theft "capital."

Each year, there are thousands of auto thefts in this county. We had a peak with 7,071 vehicles stolen in 2005. Increased enforcement efforts, along with greater public awareness and a somewhat stricter judiciary system brought the number of auto thefts down to an average of approximately 4,600 each year since 2006. The bad news is that auto thefts so far this year (January through July) in Stanislaus County are up 2.5 percent as compared to the same period in 2009. Hopefully this increase is an anomaly and only temporary in nature, but I fear that the increase is foretelling even worse statistics in the coming years.

It does appear that Stanislaus County is not the only area plagued with an increasing auto theft problem. To name a few, Fresno County has experienced a 15.2 percent increase, Kern County's increase is 8.2 percent, Kings County went up 12.7 percent and Madera County is up 16.3 percent. It is fair to assume that unless the police and residents do what is necessary to curtail the problem, we could well see similar auto theft increases in this county - an increase we cannot afford.

As residents of the Central Valley, I fear that we will always be among the higher auto theft rate areas in the U.S. This is because of various factors which include this region's above-average poverty rate, high unemployment and high school dropout rates, criminal gang infestation, and perhaps most troubling, the number of parolees and early release prisoners that are now spreading through our communities like locusts. The social changes necessary to reverse the aforementioned problems will require many years, so in the meantime, we have to rely on enforcement and prevention measures to keep the auto theft problem from returning to the 2005 level.

Compounding our problems with auto thieves, and frankly all criminals in this region, is the fact that the district attorney, the courts, probation and parole departments, local jails and the state prisons have been down-sized and are unable to properly deal with the many arrests that are being made by police. The police have also been adversely impacted by the shrinking economy and are operating with limited staffing and funding resources. Many criminals are now, in effect, "walking" from their crimes because the "system," which is comprised of the aforementioned entities, cannot deal with the volume of cases. Frankly, it is an alarming situation, and the criminals are fast finding out that their lower level crimes are given short shrift by the system - hardly the deterrent effect that is so badly needed.

In terms of enforcement, Stanislaus County has STANCATT (Stanislaus County Auto Theft Task Force), which consists of law officers from the various city police departments, CHP, and the Stanislaus County sheriff's office. State parole and the district attorney's office provide ongoing support and assistance to this task force. Additionally, the officers and deputies who patrol our communities and highways are constantly on the alert to auto thieves and work diligently to find and recover stolen cars.

Prevention is critical to suppressing the auto theft problem. It is important to make vehicles difficult to steal. In fact, many thefts occur because people leave their keys in their cars, thus tempting criminals with easy theft targets. During cool temperature periods, some people leave their unattended car running in the driveway or on the street to warm up. Keys in the car and unattended warm-ups are a surefire way to become a victim of auto theft.

Parking your car in a well-lit area at night, alarm systems, ignition security devices (usually an aftermarket add-on), and having neighbors looking out for each other is an excellent way to keep cars from being stolen while improving overall neighborhood security. One of the most effective deterrents are steering wheel locking devices like "The Club." These devices make it much harder to steal a car, and the fact that they can easily be seen from outside the car makes for a good visual deterrent.

The auto theft problem is likely to stay with us into the foreseeable future. Whether the problem stays static, grows, or declines can be greatly influenced by the effort we make to keep our cars as theft-proof as possible, and it is dependent on how seriously our "system" and the people of this county treat the problem. There is nothing to celebrate in being one of the worst places in the country for auto thefts, and I sincerely hope that we can all pitch in to curtail the problem.