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Let's make vehicles harder to steal
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Each year, cities across the country with auto theft problems anxiously wait to find out where they stand ranking-wise. The degree to which an auto theft problem exists in any given area tends to speak to the quality life and relative safety of that location. People who steal cars are usually involved in all kinds of crime, so if there is an auto theft problem here, it is assumed that other types of crimes are also occurring at a high rate.

This year, the statistical information that usually arrives around March, came several months late due to a delay in receiving Census Bureau population data. Auto theft crime is measured on a per capita basis, which means that the statistics are calculated on the number of cars stolen per 100,000 population. The National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) serves as the official organization that ranks the auto theft reporting areas. The Modesto reporting area was ranked number two in the nation for 2010. The Fresno area is in the number one position.

For the last decade, the Modesto regional reporting area (which includes all jurisdictions in Stanislaus County) has held the dubious distinction of being among the five worst places in the country for auto theft. The Modesto area was the worst in the nation (number one) five times since 2003. For 2010, we are ranked in the number two position. All of this is mostly bad news for the population living here. It makes our area look crime-ridden and generally like a miserable place to exist in. But there is some good news:  In 2005, this county had 7,071 reported auto thefts and now we are down to 3,878, which represents a significant improvement and shows that the courts, residents and law enforcement can be successful when everyone works together towards a goal.

Interestingly, it looks like the 2010 national auto theft crime statistics will be at its lowest annual rate since 1967!  Of course, most of the communities reflecting this dramatic decrease are not in California; of the top 10 worst auto theft places in the nation, California cities make up eight of them.

There are features of this area that contribute to the high auto theft rate, some of which will be difficult to change any time in the near future. The large gang presence here is one of the problems. The high unemployment rate contributes to it (though I am not suggesting that the unemployed are car thieves) - it is the underlying conditions of the state dumping convicts into our communities, the inadequate prosecutorial, court, jailing and law enforcement resources, the high rate of high school dropouts and teenage pregnancies, the high level of poverty and other problems. Law enforcement alone cannot solve this auto theft problem, as it requires a fundamental rebuilding of these communities, greater community pride, greater educational achievement and that the population develops an attitude of intolerance towards crime and against other things that detract from the quality of life here.

In the meantime, the most immediate impact we can make on the auto theft problem is to make vehicles more difficult to steal, also known as "target hardening." Many thefts occur because people leave their cars unattended with their engines running (for morning warm-ups or to start the air conditioner on hot days) or leave keys in the car.  Some of our theft statistics reflect various forms of insurance fraud, which is a result of basic criminal activity or when unscrupulous car buyers can no longer keep up with payments.

The target hardening method simply involves locking cars and not leaving keys them. Parking in well-lit areas at night helps as well. We also advocate the use of alarms, steering wheel immobilizers (like "The Club), theft deterrent decals, and the various forms of high tech ignition activators. Finally, there are also subscription services available like OnStar and LoJack that allow the vehicles to be tracked in the event of theft or when there is an unauthorized intrusion in to it.

The Modesto area auto theft situation is not a good thing, but it clearly tells us that we have community problems that will only worsen if we fail to act. We have a difficult challenge ahead, but it is possible to overcome the difficulties. It starts with awareness, education and the collective, strong desire to make changes.