After some positive signs suggesting that the problem with auto thefts might be easing up, we are again seeing a statistical spike. All communities in Stanislaus County, with the exception of Hughson and Ceres, are experiencing double digit percentage increases in the number of vehicles stolen at this time as compared to the same time last year.
It is a bad situation because for every vehicle stolen, a family is likely to suffer as a result of being without transportation. The victims may not be able to get to work, parents cannot bring their kids to school, it may be difficult to go grocery shopping and getting to the doctor may be a bigger challenge as well. The point of explaining the impacts is that the "system" seems to view auto theft merely as a property crime that does not involve injuries or assaults. It does not account for the fact that for most people, their vehicles are their lifelines, and without them, daily life comes to a halt. And to make matters worse, the kinds of vehicles most likely to be stolen are older models that are "paid for," easier to steal and most probably owned by people who have no extra margin of monthly income to replace the loss. It is unfair that the people who are most likely victimized are the ones who can least afford the loss, and in many cases, they do not have adequate insurance coverage to replace the stolen vehicle.
Auto theft has been a particularly big problem here in the Central Valley, with cities like Stockton and Fresno and communities in the Modesto area having the dubious distinction of sharing the title of being among the places hardest hit with auto thefts in the nation.
It is a problem that the police work hard to combat, but law enforcement resources in many communities have suffered cutbacks, the district attorney's office has a burgeoning case load, the courts are choked with backlogged cases, jail space is grossly in short supply while at the same time, the state has been releasing thousands of early-release prisoners into our communities owing to a federal court order and the state's effort to decrease costs associated with housing prisoners.
To make matters worse, there is no sign, whatsoever, that the aforementioned problems will abate anytime soon. We are facing a bleak future of continued stress within the criminal justice system and overall reductions with the law enforcement field.
The police are enthusiastic about thwarting auto thefts before they occur and in capturing thieves. Yet, we see a significant number of auto thefts that could have been prevented, where motorists have left their unattended vehicles running to keep the air conditioning on in the summer and the heater on during the winter.
Leaving keys in vehicles is an all too common problem, and leaving vehicles unlocked is an invitation for losing your car to a thief. At any given time, there are car thieves constantly roaming our neighborhoods, parking lots and other places just looking for a car to steal. Unfortunately, they have many easy opportunities. There are also auto thieves with special tools to overcome door and ignition locks, and most of them are seasoned crooks and who have spent at least several stints in local jails or prisons for their crimes.
The best solution is prevention, and while that alone will not entirely stop the problem, it can and will make a difference. Vehicle owners need to avoid the obvious mistakes that make it easy for thieves to steal their cars. And for those who are more careful, we recommend the use of steering wheel locking devices and alarms. It also helps greatly for residents to keep on eye on their neighborhoods and to report suspicious activities to the police. Always try to park your vehicle in well-lit areas or in a garage if one is available to you.
There is no one single solution to the problem of auto theft in our communities, but we can certainly make stealing cars much more difficult for auto thieves.
Art De Werk is the Chief of Public Safety in Ceres