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Characterizing auto theft as a simple property crime in 2023 ignores the significant public safety threat the offense has become, and the challenges our peace officers face in responding to the threat.
Auto theft in 2023 isn’t just the loss of property, it now often involves violence — either in the act of taking the car, during other offenses that occur while the offenders possess the stolen car, and when law enforcement intercepts the stolen car and attempts to make an arrest(s).
Extent of the problem
Auto theft has exploded in Minnesota and in particular the metro area over the past couple of years. According to data reported by the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA), there were 16,752 vehicles stolen statewide in 2022. By contrast, there were just 8,261 in 2015.
More striking is the increase in auto theft in the metro area. In 2022, half of the state’s auto thefts were reported just in Hennepin County — 8,295. That exceeds the number of cars stolen in the entire state just seven years earlier — and it isn’t slowing down. The pace of auto theft in Minneapolis has nearly doubled in 2023, and it’s become a sad fact that a car is now stolen in Minneapolis at a pace that exceeds one/hour.
Auto theft is now dominated by juveniles, and police will tell you it’s more prevalent and problematic than the media is reporting. Auto theft is no longer committed for the value of the property, it’s done for sport. That sport includes showing off on social media, dangerously taunting police by sideswiping or ramming squad cars, and fleeing police at high rates of speed often bailing from the moving vehicle or losing control before damaging other cars and property, and often injuring innocent commuters or pedestrians.
“I am seeing a 15-year-old girl in a coma because she was in an accident in a stolen car, an 11-year-old boy intubated in the hospital because he was joyriding in a stolen car,” said O’Hara. “A 12-year-old boy was shot two different times because he was riding around in a stolen car in between running from the Minneapolis police and Hennepin County sheriff. A 14-year-old boy crashed the car and died; this is literally what’s happening.”Minneapolis Police Chief O’Hara
Auto theft now often involves committing other crimes while in the stolen vehicle. In early June a 12-year-old fled from Sheriff’s deputies in a stolen car and injured five when he crashed into a bus shelter in North Minneapolis. Up to six juveniles fled from the stolen car when it crashed. The car had matched the description of the car used in several armed robberies earlier in the day.
More and more the police are finding these juvenile car thieves are armed. Adding firearms to these situations increases the likelihood of violence during the theft. Look no further than the murder of Michael Brasel, who simply confronted a teen trying to steal his wife’s car in front of their home during a quiet morning in May and was shot and killed by the juvenile. Violence is also more likely when teens cruising around in a stolen car are armed (robberies, drive by shootings, gun pointing incidents). The potential for violence doesn’t end when the teens are intercepted by police, as now not only do the police have to deal with multiple teens fleeing in cars and on foot, but they need to deal with the likelihood these teens are armed. The scenarios created have no upside.
In the past couple of weeks, authorities including the Minneapolis Police Chief, the Hennepin County Sheriff, and the Hennepin County Attorney have held press conferences and made statements addressing the scourge of juvenile-related auto theft. The law enforcement officials have been clear on the need for more accountability.
The Hennepin County Attorney has outlined a plan that involves a commitment to make charging decisions quicker, and to use social services to offer the families of these juveniles resources to keep them from offending. It’s far too early to determine if these ideas will have a positive impact on reducing auto theft, but it seems clear what is needed in the short term is accountability in the form of arrests and detention.
Some of the systemic shortcomings that need to be addressed include a change in how auto theft is perceived and treated by juvenile corrections and our courts.
The Hennepin County Juvenile Detention Center (JDC) is unlikely to hold a juvenile for auto theft alone. The “Admission Criteria” posted on the JDC’s website makes it clear that tampering and “joyriding” will not be held. When groups of juveniles are working in concert to steal cars, but only one can drive at a time, the current practice of treating only the driver as the real threat creates a gap in accountability.
When a petition for delinquency (the juvenile terminology for “charged”) is made against a juvenile, it is a sad truth that the court system is doing an inadequate job of applying accountability to the offense. The non-public nature of most juvenile court proceedings and records doesn’t lend itself to scrutiny or public examination. The entire system appears slow to react to the proliferation of juvenile auto theft. Hopefully with the increased attention that will change sooner than later.
A glimpse into a recent arrest
This past Tuesday the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office and the Minneapolis Police Department made quick work of a group of juvenile males who had stolen two vehicles — one in Golden Valley just that morning. It’s a good case to show the challenges and risks involved in arresting juvenile car thieves.
The Twitter feed from @MNCrime captured the great work:
A few things that don’t show up in the TTwitter recap:
The arrests described above are the type carried out every day by dedicated peace officers throughout the state. They put their personal safety and their livelihoods at risk in an awful risk-reward scenario.
The law enforcement profession has been attacked and undermined from every direction since 2020. It’s been knocked down, but not out, and we owe a debt of gratitude to the peace officers who have chosen to stay in the fight.
Auto theft is just one crime that is challenging us today. But the crime goes far beyond the loss of property in 2023, and we all need to recognize that — the public, the media, and most of all our criminal justice and public safety officials.
Continuing to shine a light on the issue will help guide those officials as they make improvements to the response to auto theft and the accountability that is applied when offenders are arrested.
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