A Spike in Car Thefts in Connecticut after Long Downward Trend

From January 1 through the end of August, the Hartford Police Department recovered 741 vehicles stolen in other towns and taken to Hartford, more than the yearly totals for 2018 or  2019. 

In one weekend between Friday, Aug. 28 and Sunday, Aug. 30, 82 cars were reported stolen across Connecticut – 62 with the key fob left inside – according to a report released by the Hartford Police Department earlier this week. 

In East Lyme, Police Chief Michael Finkelstein said it’s rare to see windows smashed out of vehicles. The town has had more instances where people are entering unlocked vehicles, but not taking the car. They’re finding that people are entering vehicles and rummaging around to see if there are keys or anything of value left in the car, then moving on, he said.

Attempted car theft. Credit: Middletown Police Department

Videos of attempted thefts follow a similar pattern. The car pulls up, a few people scatter to check door handles on different cars, and if none of them are unlocked, they jump back in the car they came in and move on to something else, Finkelstein said.

“It’s unfortunate it’s not getting any better. We try our best to stay visible to deter that,” Finkelstein said. “I can’t stress enough that people should lock their vehicles. That’s the key to keeping their property safe.”

Juvenile laws or a national trend

In light of U.S. Supreme Court decisions in Miller v. Alabama, in 2012, and Graham v. Florida, in 2010, Connecticut revised its juvenile justice laws in 2015, limiting when a juvenile offender could be transferred to adult court, which critics say limits accountability for vehicle thieves, who are largely between 16-24 years old.

According to Hartford Police Lt. Paul Cicero, the department will issue a juvenile summons to a suspect and their guardian to appear in court, they’ll be released and later arrested again for stealing more vehicles. Almost everyone arrested for vehicle thefts in Hartford is a repeat offender, according to Cicero.

Ken Barone, project manager with the Institute for Municipal and Regional Policy at Central Connecticut State University, which analyzed car thefts for lawmakers last year, said that thefts in Connecticut were largely following national trends, meaning that changes to the juvenile justice system in Connecticut were not driving the trend. 

Motor vehicle thefts in Connecticut declined by 43 percent from 1998 to 2017, and dropped 17 percent from 2008 to 2017, according to the Institute for Municipal and Regional Policy, which reviewed Uniform Crime Reports. 

Thefts increased 19 percent from 2015-2018, before dropping below the 2015 rate last year, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau. 

The bureau, which has numbers that skew slightly lower than the Uniform Crime Reporting statistics, reported 7,182 thefts in 2018 – up from the 6,028 the bureau reported in 2015, but still well below the 8,823 thefts Uniform Crime Reporting shows for 2008. 

The bureau reported 5,944 thefts in 2019. Early numbers from the State Police and Hartford Police show a rate of thefts for 2020 more in line with the higher 2018 numbers than for 2019.

As vehicle thefts have become more common in recent years — set against a larger downward trend of cases — the areas where most thefts occur has also shifted in Connecticut, according to the institute’s analysis, part of a nationwide trend called the “spoke and wheel” effect: thefts are occurring less frequently within the largest cities and more in the surrounding suburbs. 

The hot spot for car thefts in Connecticut also migrated up Interstate 91 from New Haven to the Hartford region since 2010. According to the institute’s analysis, Hartford and its surrounding suburbs have the highest rates of vehicle theft in the state.

Towns outside of the Hartford region, the I-91 corridor and the western I-95 corridor, have reported consistently lower rates of theft over the last decade. 

There have been three cars stolen from East Lyme this summer. One was found in New Britain, another in Westbrook and one in Glastonbury, said Finkelstein. 

In May, an SUV stolen out of Groton was used in a shooting in Waterbury where one man was killed and a woman was hurt, leading to a warning from the Multi-City Auto Theft and Urban Violence Task Force that stolen cars could be used in violent crimes.

The downside of leaving your keys

According to Barone, car thefts have always been linked predominantly to teenagers. What’s changed is the technology, the introduction of wireless key fobs and push button ignitions.

In Connecticut, thefts with a key or a fob left inside of a vehicle increased 47 percent from 2016 to 2018, when 1,070 of those vehicles were stolen, according to the National Crime Insurance Bureau, which collects statistics from insurance claims. Nationwide, thefts of vehicles with the key or fob inside increased 18 percent over that time.

The number of cars stolen with the key or fob left in the vehicle from the Hartford region — including New Britain, West Hartford, Manchester, Glastonbury and Wethersfield — increased by 85 percent between 2016 and 2018, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau.

“Careless actions of the owners are resulting in a higher occurrence of thefts everywhere and a tremendous increase in out-of-town recoveries for us,” said Cicero.

To deal with the increase in cars stolen from out of town, Hartford has doubled its dedicated vehicle theft unit to four detectives, Cicero said. It takes about 2 hours to process a stolen car, between looking at the scene, having the car towed, notifying the town it came from and the owner, and actually writing up the report, he said. That means Hartford Police detectives have logged about 1,500 hours just processing cars stolen from out of town so far this year.

“That’s a tremendous, tremendous strain on resources,” Cicero said.