Each year, the National Insurance Crime Bureau analyzes auto theft statistics from all cities throughout the United States and ranks them on the basis of their respective auto theft rate. This "rate" is based on the number of vehicles stolen per 1,000 population. For the calendar year 2012, the Modesto area (basically all of Stanislaus County) ended up in the No. 1 auto theft area of this country. We have been among the top five areas plagued by auto theft for many years, but during the previous two years we were in the second place position only to be "beat out" by Fresno. I also note with interest that of the top 20, 15 of those were California cities. The Central Valley of California, which is 450 miles long and extends from Kern County to Shasta County, has a disproportionate share of the national auto theft problem, with seven cities of the region having significantly above-average rates.
There are several reasons for the auto theft problem in the Valley, none the least is the fact that most Central Valley communities are relatively poor. Unemployment and high school dropout rates are high, and teenage pregnancies are a continuing problem. On top of this, the state treats our region with relative indifference. Central Valley communities are a dumping ground for early-release prisoners from state institutions, our county jails are packed with prisoners that have been transferred, and local prosecutorial resources are limited by tight budgets. The overrepresentation of gangs in our area is a contributing factor and in general, we have a weakened criminal justice system owing to funding shortages.
One of the byproducts of having a poor economy is that more people have to drive older cars that are easier to steal. At the same time, auto thieves have less fear for the criminal justice system because the punishment for their crimes is lighter now than I have ever seen in my law enforcement career.
The solutions to these problems are not going to come easily or quickly, as we have been saddled with them for many decades, and they may, in fact, get worse. We can meet these challenges by placing more pressure on the state legislature and governor, who have so far been all too happy to help balance the state budget with the AB109 realignment program, which amounts to nothing more than a prisoner dumping initiative. It makes me angry that the people we help to elect can be so seemingly calloused and disinterested in the welfare of the people who live in the Central Valley.
My rant aside, until the higher-level problem of state neglect gets solved, the only way we can drive down the vehicle theft problem is to make them harder to steal by using steering wheel locking devices, battery cut-off switches, car alarms, and for neighbors to keep an eye on each other's cars and homes. It is important to watch what is going on in neighborhoods, as criminals regularly canvass neighborhoods in search of cars and other things to steal. Watch for bicyclists and people on foot that seem to be paying too close attention to what the neighbors own. Anytime suspicious activity is observed, the police need to be called without delay and the best possible description of the suspicious person(s), their vehicle (if they have one), and their direction of travel should be provided to dispatchers.
Crime is a serious problem in our region, but it need not stay that way. When populations rise up and tell their elected officials that they have had enough of the neglect and demand action, things can and will change. In my view, it is long overdue that the people of this Valley express their outrage and demand change. The richer areas of the state make things happen because of the amount of money that exists there. We can make things better by making our voices heard. We must demand the attention and resources we deserve.