Auto theft – it’s time for a paradigm shift

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.

The response

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:

  • Officers tracking a stolen 2021 white 2500 Chevy Silverado from Golden Valley, now stationary on the 1600 block of Harmon Pl. in Minneapolis.
  • Officer has eyes on the vehicle. There are 5 juvenile males around it, trying to start it.
  • There is a Kia there too, comes back as stolen and was reportedly involved in “checking doorknobs” in Golden Valley at the same time the Silverado was stolen.
  • Both the truck and Kia were taken without weapons. Kia stolen from Hopkins.
  • Both vehicles are backed into parking spots.
  • LE are holding off on responding until a female with a child clear the area.
  • LE is moving in. Suspects are all running.
  • Officer with canine has 3 in the park. In custody.
  • 9:39 a.m. – All 5 are in custody.

A few things that don’t show up in the TTwitter recap:

  • This event originated in Golden Valley and it came on the heals of a particularly brutal assault that happened there just a week earlier. In that case an 80-year-old woman was watering her lawn at noon with her garage door open. As the woman returned to her house and closed the garage door, five juvenile black males pulled up in a car, got out and prevented the garage door from closing, then began assaulting the woman and demanding the keys to the car parked in the garage. The woman ended up with a broken arm as a result of the attack but was successful in preventing the juveniles from stealing her car by screaming and fighting back. They eventually fled the area. No arrests have yet been made in that case, and there has been no direct link made between this case and the auto theft suspects above, but the method of operation — prowling residential neighborhoods looking for opportunity — is similar.
  • The arresting deputies and officers from the auto theft case determined the ages of the juveniles involved were between 13 and 17. The juveniles were less than concerned with their arrests, at times being defiant, and some taking naps in the back of the squads as the deputies conducted follow-up duties such as collecting evidence and towing vehicles. Some of the evidence was in the form of cell phones that each of the juveniles had been using to video and take selfies of themselves with the stolen cars to share of social media — part of the whole game or for sport mentality of auto theft in 2023.
  • One of the juveniles arrested carried a realistic-looking firearm with live bullets in the magazine. Oddly the firearm itself was a pellet gun made to look like an actual firearm. 
  • The juveniles all claimed to live in St. Paul, while police records that the on-scene deputies were able to access suggested they all resided in Brooklyn Park. The juveniles claimed to not to know how to contact their parents.
  • Four of the five juveniles were transported to the HC Juvenile Detention Center (it was determined that only 4 had direct connection to the stolen vehicles). Given the established admissions criteria, deputies knew the JDC would likely not accept the arrestees. An admissions “override” is possible if an arresting agency supervisor convinces a JDC supervisor of the need to book. That override was employed. The JDC agreed to book and release three of the juveniles and hold the fourth, who had possessed the replica firearm.
  • Sheriff’s detectives responded to the JDC while the juveniles were being booked. They found that one of the juveniles had already been released before the fourth juvenile had even made it into the JDC from the squad car.
  • An in-custody case was submitted to the HCAO for the juvenile with the replica firearm and live ammo. The HCAO did file a delinquency petition within a day charging the juvenile with possession of the weapon and ammunition, and with receiving stolen goods related to the stolen vehicles. Delinquency petitions are pending for the other three juveniles who were booked and released. That action should occur within five days according to the new timeline laid out by the HCAO. It is unclear what, if any, systemic oversight or connections were imposed on these juveniles pending the charging decision.

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.