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What’s the real reason behind CO’s car theft spike?

Police Chief Pazen Pushes Back

Hey Denver, it’s Paul.

Since I wrote to you last week about Bree’s interview with Police Chief Paul Pazen, there have been a few developments.

Let me quickly catch you up in case you missed that one:

Bree and I visited the Denver Police Administration Building last week for an interview about Denver’s recent “dramatic increase” in crime, as Pazen put it. In that context, he specifically highlighted the issue of vehicle theft, noting the fact that Colorado now leads the country. He even went so far as to identify a specific state law passed in 2014 as the main catalyst for the recent spike.

I reached out to a couple of the lawmakers responsible for that legislation, and both rejected the chief’s contention that a “one-level downgrade” in punishments for auto theft would cause such a big spike. “That doesn’t make sense to me,” former State Sen. Linda Newell wrote to me. “Most [potential car thieves], if not all, don’t even know this happened, probably.”

And that brings me to update number one, which comes courtesy of one of our brilliant readers. Brendan Beck, @brendanbeck on Twitter and an assistant professor at CU Denver’s Department of Sociology, posted the chart below and wrote: “The timing of the increase says to me the pandemic and attendant recession are the most likely causes of the recent increase in car thefts.”

However, this comparison isn’t totally fair to the chief. Pazen was talking about statewide thefts, not just in Denver. So I pulled up stats from Colorado Crime Statistics and, with some help from my data scientist wife, made this:

Zooming out to the state level does seem to give more credence to Pazen’s point about 2014 being some kind of a turning point. So I was delighted when his office got back to me late last week and clarified their read on the data.

“Chief Pazen isn’t saying this law is the only factor contributing to the spike in auto thefts over the past several years,” a spokesperson for the police department wrote. “But there could be a correlation because it was passed and took effect around the same time statewide auto theft numbers began to rise significantly, even while auto theft rates across the country remained stable.

“Also, if you look at a list of the most stolen vehicle makes/models in the Denver Metro Area, you’ll notice that they are older vehicles with lower values, which may [emphasis theirs] indicate auto thieves are targeting lower-valued cars with lesser penalties, which also disproportionately affects lower-income community members.”

And that brings me to the third and final update: Late last week, the Colorado Auto Theft Prevention Authority’s (CATPA) Metropolitan Auto Theft Task Force published its annual report. I had never heard of this organization, but after perusing the report, I decided to call them up.

“You can’t blame just one thing. There’s a systematic problem that we’ve got with vehicle theft,” said Robert Force, director of CATPA since 2014. His organization, which operates as part of the Colorado State Patrol, works with law enforcement and insurance companies to collect and analyze both hard data and anecdotal evidence. “What we have seen statewide is an uptick beginning in 2012. We started seeing 3-4% rises year to year, which was a concern for us.”

Force explained to me that his office sees many causes for this trend. “When we looked at crime increases, we were looking for changes with the vehicles, changes in the behaviors of the thieves, and environmental changes with law enforcement and the criminal justice system. We saw changes in all those arenas.”

He laid out a variety of factors, ranging from big, abstract stuff like the pandemic changing police apprehension procedures to the very specific shift from physical car keys to widespread adoption of keyless entry systems.

But I pressed him for more on the 2014 law Pazen identified. Force said he thinks that a “one-level downgrade” absolutely could have led to a change in car thieves’ behavior. “Prior to 2014, they’d be sitting in jail waiting for trial,” he said. “After 2014, the sentences were minimized, so they were going right back out on the street to steal cars. We heard stories of that over and over and over.”

The other really interesting aspect of this that Force highlighted was the fact that while vehicle thefts have gone up, the number of offenders hasn’t. “It’s not like more criminals were out there, it’s just the same people stealing more cars,” he said.

“It’s a very big challenge. We’re talking about a group of prolific offenders who are committing an array of crimes. They are using stolen vehicles as a means of transport to commit other crimes.

“What complicated it, and still complicates it,” Force continued, “is that car thieves travel around [across jurisdictions]. So it’s incredibly difficult for law enforcement to band these cases and put prolific offenders in front of a judge who can see the big picture.”

So while he said he could see Pazen’s point about the 2014 law, the truth is a lot more complicated. “You can’t blame just one thing. There’s a systematic problem”

— Paul Karolyi, City Cast Denver Producer

Paul Den

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