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Auto theft task force keeps eye on San Joaquin cars

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Posted: Sunday, March 8, 2009 10:00 pm

The detectives sit in nondescript cars parked strategically throughout the quiet west Lodi neighborhood one morning.

A California Highway Patrol spotter plane drones high in the sky above them almost out of sight. One detective has "eyes on" the stolen red Honda Civic sitting empty on Magnolia Court. He is constantly watching the car to make sure no one drives off. The spotter in the CHP plane also has the car in view.

An officer on routine patrol drove past the car two hours ago and, since Hondas still attract car thieves, she decided to check the license plate in the computer. The car turned out to be stolen out of Stockton a week ago. She took up a position down the street and notified dispatch. The patrol supervisor called Detective Nick Welton, Lodi P.D.'s representative in Delta Regional Auto Theft Team (RATT). Within an hour, Detective Welton and several members of the task force set up the surveillance of the Honda.

Instead of immediately calling a tow truck to recover the vehicle, the detectives decide to wait and see if the suspect returns. Surveillances can be painfully boring, but the payoff can be quite large. The detectives are ready but, after an hour so goes by, they move into a sort of a "power save" mode. They sit quietly in their load bearing vests with "Police" emblazoned on them going over in their minds what might happen and what actions they will take.

"We have someone approaching the car", the detective "on point" says over the radio. A burst of adrenaline causes the detectives' hearts to beat faster. A black and white patrol car has been stationed in the area in order to make the actual traffic stop. A marked unit with red and blue lights on the roof is used instead of unmarked detective cars so the suspect and the public know it's the police making the stop. The CHP plane quickly moves to a lower altitude and begins a racetrack pattern.

"White male, blue ball cap, about 5"10", black sweatshirt," the detective says. "He's opened the driver's side door, he's getting in…" Detectives put their cars in gear and slowly move onto the roadway. Only two officers will actually go to the traffic stop. The others are tasked to maintain a perimeter position or cut off lanes of escape.

"He's headed north on Westbrook. South on Lower Sac. One occupant." Although the officers have a basic plan, they still have to wait and react to what he does before deciding where to make the stop. They try to avoid busy streets, schools, or shopping centers to keep bystanders out of harm's way.

"Turning west on Sargent Road." The marked unit and two detective cars sit idling behind Raley's. They remind themselves to control their breathing and talk slowly on the radio.

"I have a visual" the patrol officer says. The Honda drives past them and the officers make eye contact with the suspect. They've reached the most critical moment of the entire incident.

"What's this guy going to do?" they wonder. The suspect accelerates and the officers move in behind him and activate the red and blue lights. A detective is sitting far to the west, with a spike strip along the side of the road just in case the suspect decides to not stop. The small metal spikes in the strip would detach and punch holes in the suspect's tires. The tires deflate at a steady rate and the car would eventually come to a stop.

In this case, the spike strip is not needed. The suspect sees the patrol car lights and immediately pulls over. The task force officers take him into custody. As with most stolen auto cases in the county north of Eight Mile Road, Detective Welton will conduct the investigation and do the report.

Delta RATT was established in 1996 and has been a tremendous asset for our department and our citizens. The task force is made up of officers from Lodi P.D., CHP, Manteca P.D., San Joaquin County Sheriff's Department, and San Joaquin County Probation. The unit is supervised by the CHP and Sheriff's Department. The group is responsible for investigating auto theft-related crime in San Joaquin County.

We've all seen the stories in the media about how this area rates with regards to auto thefts. I can assure you that Detective Welton and the members of the task force work tirelessly without a lot of recognition to reduce the number of cars stolen in the area. The nine-member unit conduct surveillances, serve search warrants, do probation and parole searches, deal with "chop shops" and inspect auto repair facilities. They investigate cargo theft, stolen big rigs and construction equipment cases. They also assist local agencies with anything that has to do with stolen autos.

Welton receives the Lodi P.D. stolen auto list every day and spends a great deal of his time in the Lodi area.

Their efforts, along with those of our officers, reduced auto theft in the city by almost 25 percent last year. 98 fewer cars were stolen in 2008 than were taken in 2007.

Any comments, questions or advice for Behind the Badge can be e-mailed to Jeanie Biskup at jbiskup@pd.lodi.gov or mailed to Lodi Police Department, 215 West Elm St., Lodi, CA 95240, phone (209) 333-6864.

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