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March 27, 2023

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Law enforcement sounds alarm about record-high vehicle theft in Clark County

88% increase in thefts in first 3 months of 2022 compared with last year

By , Columbian staff reporter
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5 Photos
Jake Beals, lead driver for Triple J Towing, looks over stolen pickups Monday morning in the company's Vancouver lot. Beals said Triple J responded to 47 calls for stolen vehicles at its three lots in April.
Jake Beals, lead driver for Triple J Towing, looks over stolen pickups Monday morning in the company's Vancouver lot. Beals said Triple J responded to 47 calls for stolen vehicles at its three lots in April. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Jake Beals spent his Monday morning towing a Yahama Vino 125 scooter that was reported stolen out of Chehalis. It was the first call of the day at Triple J Towing’s Vancouver location, but there were sure to be more.

In April, Triple J Towing impounded 47 stolen vehicles at its three Clark County lots. Beals said that’s about double the calls compared with this time last year, and he knows other tow operators in the county are seeing a similar trend. The most common stolen vehicles the company has recovered lately are Ford pickups and Subarus, he said.

Last year, 2,829 vehicles were reported stolen in Clark County, according to data from the Washington State Patrol. In the first three months of this year, 1,150 vehicles were stolen in the county, which is the third highest number in the state, behind King and Pierce counties.

Although the spike in stolen vehicles means more business for Triple J and its competitors, Beals wishes it wasn’t the case.

“This is not always the business you want,” he said. “Yeah, we want the business, but we don’t want people to have their stuff stolen.”

Tips from PEMCO Insurance to avoid vehicle theft:

  • Park inside a locked garage.
  • Lock the vehicle, close the windows and take the keys.
  • Never leave a vehicle running unattended.
  • Keep vehicles cleaned out.
  • Choose well-lit, busy parking areas.
  • Invest in anti-theft technology, such as a GPS tracker, car  alarm or steering wheel lock.

Statewide, law enforcement agencies are sounding the alarm about record-high rates of vehicle thefts. The Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs noted an 88 percent increase in thefts in the first three months of 2022, compared with the same period in 2021.

So far this year, 12,569 vehicles have been reported stolen across the state through the end of March, according to the State Patrol data cited by WASPC. By that time last year, the number was about half that, or 6,692 vehicles reported stolen, and by that time in 2020, the number was even less, at 5,897.

March marked the highest monthly number of vehicle thefts in the state in the last 20 years, with 4,249 vehicles reported stolen, the data shows. Based on the beginning of this year, WASPC estimates more than 50,000 vehicles could be stolen across the state by the end of the year.

The executive director of WASPC in a statement last month noted a particular spike in vehicle thefts beginning around the summer of last year. The agency says police reform legislation has tied the hands of law enforcement officers, and thieves know it.

“The data show what our law enforcement and communities are seeing out there every day — the word is out and criminals know what they can do under our current laws,” Steve Strachan said in the statement. “Each of these alarming numbers represent a victim, and victims of auto theft too often are those who can least afford it — with older cars with fewer anti-theft systems, with less insurance coverage, and with greater impacts on their lives.”

Rep. Monica Stonier, D-Vancouver, agreed that the word is out about what people can get away with, but she pointed to the public statements law enforcement agencies have made about cutting services and decrying police reform laws.

“Across the state, there have been announcements that law enforcement was just going to stop responding to things, and I think it’s important for the public to know what kind of public safety challenges the community is facing, but those are not the only people listening — criminals are listening, too,” Stonier said. “And I think there’s a sense of responsibility for how that information gets communicated.”

The Clark County Sheriff’s Office previously announced that effective March 31, deputies would no longer respond to minor crimes, such as low-value thefts when there is no suspect information, citing low staffing levels. Stonier said she hopes to bolster law enforcement staffing so agencies, such as the sheriff’s office, can resume investigating property crimes, including vehicle thefts.

National crime surge

Vehicle thefts started increasing in 2020, when 26,520 vehicles were stolen by the end of the year, according to the state data. The number continued to increase in 2021, to 31,032. Prior to the latest increase, the previous high was in 2005, when 41,293 vehicles were stolen.

Stonier said Washington’s vehicle theft problem appears to be a part of a larger, national trend. The solutions to the problem must be community specific, she said.

Oregon has also seen a spike in vehicle thefts, beginning in the summer of 2021. According to data from the Oregon State Police’s crime dashboard, 19,402 vehicles were reported stolen in 2021, compared with 16,347 thefts in 2020. The monthly rates in November and December were nearly double the rates in February and March of 2021.

The Los Angeles Police Department also saw vehicle thefts reach record highs in the last three months of 2021, according to department data reported by Crosstown. Officials in New Jersey also sounded the alarm to their state Legislature in March over a spike in vehicle thefts.

At a conference with prosecutors from across the state last week, Clark County Prosecutor Tony Golik said the spike in vehicle thefts was on everyone’s minds. Locally, one prosecutor used to handle the caseload of vehicle thefts in the county. Now, it’s no longer a one-person job.

Golik agreed that one factor driving Washington’s increase is that law enforcement officers stopped pursuing vehicle theft suspects, in response to 2021 police reform legislation such as House Bill 1310. That bill limited when officers could use force and how much. (House Bill 2037, signed into law in March, now makes it clear that police can use force to stop people from fleeing temporary investigative detentions.)

But he also noted other factors occurring simultaneously that he believes are driving up crime rates — decreased capacity in state jails to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and the decriminalization of drug possession in the state.

The first thing Golik hopes to see change, he said, is an increase in the local jail capacity, to get back to holding people accused of property crimes. Vehicle theft is a harbinger for other property crimes, he said, and likely signals an increase in similar crimes.

“If we’re going to change this trend line, we need jail capacity and we need law enforcement and prosecutor resources for this,” Golik said. “Unless we change something, I think things will get worse, not better.”

Other factors driving crime rates

Law enforcement officials have previously echoed concerns about rising rates of property crimes, as well. At a January town hall event, Vancouver Police Chief James McElvain shared data that showed a sharp increase in lower-level crimes in the city since 2019.

According to Vancouver police data, officers responded to 173 percent more auto theft calls in 2021, compared with 2019. The agency saw an 88 percent increase in vandalism calls between those years. Officers recorded a 75 percent spike in vehicle prowl calls and a 52 percent rise in theft calls.

Clark County Sheriff Chuck Atkins said the sheriff’s office’s data shows just a 3 percent increase in violent crime over the past few years but a 33 percent increase in lower-level crime. Auto thefts were up by 48 percent in the unincorporated parts of the county, the sheriff said.

Drug possession can be a root cause of property crimes, such as vehicle theft, according to Golik.

When the Washington Supreme Court ruled last year that the state’s drug possession law was unconstitutional, that led to fewer people being referred to treatment through local drug courts, he said. Clark County’s Drug Court has the capacity for 120 cases, but Golik said Thursday that only 75 people were using the service.

Golik wants to get more people utilizing drug court in hopes of curbing crime rates. He said Clark County still has a robust drug court, where some smaller counties shut down their programs after the Supreme Court ruling.

Still, the prosecutor said crime rates can be affected by broad trends across the community, such as an increase in homelessness. Stonier also noted people still facing financial hardships from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“In this last year, as I understand it, 80 percent of calls that have come into our housing supports in Clark County have been first-time calls to ask for rental or housing assistance,” Stonier said. “That statistic, to me, also indicates that the community, broadly, is suffering if they’re at the lower end of the income scale and are still not coming out of this pandemic with the resiliency that many others are, so that demand on the ability to survive, I think contributes to crime generally.”