Don Haynes’ son walked outside early Sunday morning to a nasty surprise: His car was gone. He found no broken glass on the ground, no evidence left behind.
Quickly and quietly in the middle of the night, he became one of Lodi’s constantly increasing car theft victims.
“(The thief) shaved a key down and used it to trigger the ignition,” said Haynes, who went to the Lodi Police Department to pick up an anti-theft device for his son’s car last week, after it was recovered. “It’s that easy, and it happens a lot.”
In Lodi, Stockton and other parts of the western United States, police say the number of car thefts has increased in recent years. Those numbers are continuing to climb due to several factors, including short jail stints for non-violent criminals. Now, law enforcement officials are getting proactive, hoping to stop a growing number of thieves.
So far this year, reported car thefts in Lodi increased 66 percent, compared to the first three months of last year, according to the Lodi Police Department. Eighty-three cars were reported stolen during the first three months of this year — nearly one a day.
In 2012, 349 cars were reported stolen in Lodi, a 39-percent increase from 2011.
After car thefts reached a historic low in 2010, the rate has rapidly increased and garnered the attention of law enforcement throughout the county.
“In January and February, it seemed like we spent much more time (in Lodi),” said Sgt. Matt McKee of Delta Regional Auto Task Force.
Between January and June last year, car thefts were up 8 percent in the United States’ Western region, while the number of stolen cars decreased in the country’s other three regions — the Northeast, Midwest and South, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
But what’s causing the spike?
Law enforcement officials say multiple factors, ranging from easy vehicle access to the realignment of California’s jail and prison system, are enabling thieves to become more opportunistic.
Many criminals have spent significantly less time behind bars since California introduced prison realignment in 2011. In order to reduce overcrowding, the state releases more non-violent offenders shortly after they’re booked, which has encouraged eager thieves.
“Auto thefts will go up when more thieves are released from jails and prisons,” said Sgt. Sierra Brucia of the Lodi Police Department. “More criminals are out on the streets as opposed to being locked up. So it’s not a stretch to say realignment is one reason for the increase.”
Thieves are also prowling neighborhoods, looking for any car that could be quickly commandeered.
“The vast majority seem to be crimes of opportunity,” McKee said.
In Stockton, a recent trend is a product of the cold morning weather, according to Public Information Officer Joseph Silva of the Stockton Police Department.
Thieves will walk the streets, searching for cars left running and unattended while the owners wait for them to warm up.
This year, car thefts have increased in Stockton, but at a lower rate than Lodi, Silva said.
He added that Stockton police have taken a proactive approach to curbing car thefts.
“We’re going out and targeting these thefts, as well as educating citizens about how to protect cars from potential auto thieves,” Silva said.
Lodi, working in conjunction with the Delta RATT, is taking a similar approach.
“It’s definitely forced us to refocus our efforts,” Brucia said.
McKee said: “We’re coming at it from an educational standpoint. We’re producing flyers with information on how to avoid being a victim of auto theft. The common-sense approach is the best way to avoid becoming a victim.”
On the streets, the Delta RATT is focusing on areas that see spikes in auto thefts.
Recently, the RATT arrested a small team they believe could be responsible for a string of thefts in a Lodi neighborhood.
After seeing a sharp rise in thefts, police increased patrols in a targeted neighborhood, McKee said.
They followed a group of teens driving a stolen car and watched as they dumped it several blocks away. Quickly, police arrested the suspects.
While police can’t attribute all the thefts in that neighborhood to the group, thefts there have drastically decreased since the arrest, McKee said.
McKee added that thieves typically steal vehicles in order to get from one place to another — maybe from Lodi to Stockton, for example. Some also take the cars and search for valuables. But rarely are the cars stripped.
Haynes’ son’s car was found only two blocks from his home, intact and unharmed.
With the car back home, Haynes took advantage of the county’s latest effort to deter car thefts.
The car is on the county’s list of the nine most-stolen vehicle makes and models, which allows Haynes to receive a free steering wheel lock from Lodi PD.
Law enforcement officials are continuing to devise proactive ideas with the hope of halting this recent rise.
“Through our efforts and the efforts of the public to take preventative measures, I think we can have a big impact on auto thefts,” McKee said.
Contact reporter Kristopher Anderson at firstname.lastname@example.org.