Car thieves take 'bait' - East Valley Tribune: News

Car thieves take 'bait'

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Posted: Sunday, March 16, 2003 10:02 pm | Updated: 1:15 pm, Thu Oct 6, 2011.

The two men take off in a stolen car, and immediately talk turns to how much the car is worth and what it might sell for.

But they couldn't finish their conversation before red and blue lights flash behind them and Scottsdale police officers approach the car with their guns drawn.

The two get out of the car with their hands in the air.

The duo were the first Scottsdale suspects arrested this month in a new program to thwart auto thefts in Arizona, the state with the highest rate of this crime. Police are trapping thieves with specially disguised vehicles.

"We want everybody to think that every car in every street — whether it's in a driveway, a parking lot, in a shopping center — is a bait car," said Scottsdale police Sgt. Tom Macari, head of the department's auto theft unit.

The bait cars have hit the streets of Scottsdale, Mesa and Tempe so far this year. Phoenix will unveil its bait cars in several weeks.

Mesa has used the cars to arrest three suspects. In a separate incident, Mesa police hauled in a man with prior arrests for auto theft and burglary.

Scottsdale police have arrested two men. Tempe is using several vehicles as lures, but no one has taken the bait yet.

"We're optimistic that will change," Tempe police Sgt. Dan Masters said.

Police admit the odds seem stacked against them. With 52,203 auto thefts in 2001 — about six cars an hour in Arizona — police say the chances of a thief stealing a bait car are slim.

"It's hit and miss," Macari said. "You put it there, and it takes one person to walk over to the right car and take it. We've had them deployed where the car right next to it gets stolen."

Police said bait cars have the potential to significantly reduce auto theft. They point to a similar program in Minneapolis, where the number of stolen cars dropped 40 percent during the first year bait cars were used. In Mesa, auto theft detail Sgt. Dave Mauser said he expects a drop of 15 percent to 25 percent.

Each police department has its own bait vehicles, donated by insurance companies. They could be sports cars, sport utility vehicles, pickups or vans. Police prefer to use the top 10 models in surveys of stolen vehicles because they are common enough that they don't arouse suspicion.

The agencies won't disclose the number or types of vehicles they use.

Police park the cars in areas that have the highest number of thefts, usually shopping centers or apartment complexes.

Police rig the vehicles with a camera, a microphone and sensors that set off an alarm at a police dispatch center. If a thief opens the door, starts it or even tows it, the sensors alert dispatchers. They call in the closest patrol officers as they monitor a computer screen that maps the vehicle's location and speed every eight seconds with the help of a global positioning system device in the car.

"The response time is very quick, within one or two minutes," Mauser said.

When police get close enough, officers tell dispatchers to activate a remote switch that kills the engine. Police rush in with guns drawn as the car coasts to a stop. The suspects usually can't escape because most bait cars also lock the passengers inside.

If dispatchers can tell the driver is reaching a dangerous speed or entering a area where it would be difficult to conduct a stop, they can kill the engine before the officers catch up. Even if the suspect escapes, police have obtained a video recording and avoided a dangerous high-speed chase.

The bait cars should make convictions easier. Suspects often lie and claim they borrowed cars from friends or say they planned to return it, but sound recordings have revealed suspects talking about plans to stash the car or sell it.

"When the suspects are discussing what they'll do with the car, it's hard to deny it in court," Macari said.

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