There is good news for Stamford residents who nervously watch home-security videos of hooded thieves stepping through their yards and down their driveways, trying the handles of their cars.
Stamford police got a $94,444 grant to spend on catching criminals who steal cars and whatever’s in them.
The grant – federal American Rescue Plan money distributed by the state – targets auto theft and related crimes. It requires municipal police departments to work with each other and with state police, including task forces that handle special investigations, gun tracing, narcotics, urban violence, and organized crime.
The Board of Finance Thursday unanimously approved the grant, meant to cover overtime costs for officers through the end of the year.
“I think taxpayers will be very happy to hear we’re doing this,” finance board member Laura Burwick said.
Fellow board member Dennis Mahoney said residents who are victimized report that officers tell them there’s little to be done because the thefts are random crimes of opportunity.
“Has that changed?” Mahoney asked.
“It’s a difficult crime to investigate after the fact,” Stamford Police Capt. Scott Duckworth explained during the meeting. “The majority of cases involve unlocked cars. People just don’t lock them.”
The grant, which needs final approval from the Board of Representatives, will support the work of officers in the detective bureau and patrol division, Duckworth said.
An investigator is working with other law enforcement agencies to track “organized groups that come in from New York and Bridgeport and other places and steal a bunch of cars at once,” Duckworth said. “Grants were given to several towns … it’s a regional effort to go after the people responsible.”
Auto thefts and break-ins, and other property crimes, proliferated nationwide with the COVID-19 pandemic, spiking in 2020.
Property crimes generally declined in the U.S. in 2021, which was true for Connecticut. The Institute for Municipal and Regional Policy at the University of Connecticut, for example, reported last year that car thefts in the state decreased in 2021 compared with 2020.
Researchers at the institute said data indicated that, as pandemic restrictions relaxed, auto thefts would continue to fall in 2022. That data is still being compiled.
The numbers likely will not show a return to 2020 levels, but “we’re still getting a lot of auto thefts,” Stamford Assistant Police Chief Richard Conklin said Thursday.
The numbers kick up when the weather gets cold, Conklin said.
“This time of year people start the car in the morning to let it warm up then go back in the house,” he said. “A few minutes later they go back out to go to work and the car’s not there. We just had a case where someone pulled up to a bank, left the car running while they ran in to use the ATM, ran back out and the car was gone.”
That’s OK for newer cars that can be started and left running, locked, he said.
“Some jurisdictions want to make it against the law to start your car and leave it if you don’t have that technology,” Conklin said. “It’s such an easy target.”
So are cars left unlocked in driveways, he said.
“We certainly see people who are still comfortable leaving their keys or fobs in the car. A lot of times they live in the more affluent neighborhoods,” Conklin said. “They feel safe. They leave belongings in the car – cash, electronics, phones, laptops, bags, wallets, packages. It’s a tough habit for them to break.”
Some municipalities will use part of their grants to fund public education campaigns warning people to lock their cars, he said. But Stamford is spending the money on investigations and patrols, he said.
“You can see from all the videos posted on social media that the thieves rattling car doors are mostly younger males hooded up or wearing hats,” Conklin said. “Our investigators and investigators from other jurisdictions process the cars and we get DNA hits. We find DNA that shows that the same individuals are involved in the same sort of activity in Bridgeport, Norwalk, New Haven, Meriden and other towns. The criminality has become regional. There’s a lot of movement.”
It’s a way to fend off police, he said.
“If they target the same town night after night, the law enforcement agency in that town will adapt and set up patrols,” Conklin said. “So they hit New Canaan on Monday and Greenwich on Tuesday and Stamford on Thursday.”
Many times thieves drive stolen cars while stealing cars, or they put stolen license plates on their own cars, he said.
“These cars are coming from Waterbury, Bridgeport, Hamden, New Haven, New York. The thieves are nomadic, targeting different neighborhoods,” Conklin said. “A lot of times they’re 15, 16, 17 years old. Some of them have been arrested 20 or 30 times for the same type of crime.”
In recent years laws were changed to focus on rehabilitating juveniles rather than incarcerating them. After an arrest, they were quickly released.
“Those in law enforcement feel it went too far,” Conklin said. “People saw the effects of these laws.”
Last year the Connecticut legislature passed reforms for juvenile arrest proceedings and handling of repeat offenders, particularly those involved in motor vehicle thefts.
Conklin said some of the $94,444 grant will help officers pursue thieves who get under cars to saw off the catalytic converter, a part of the exhaust system that turns engine fumes into less harmful gasses. Converters contain rhodium, palladium and platinum – precious metals that sell for roughly $1,000 to $20,000 an ounce.
Catalytic converters contain a few grams of the precious metals. Thieves can get $50 to $300 for a converter from a scrapyard dealer, who sells it to a recycler.
Conklin said the theft “does a tremendous amount of damage to the vehicle and is costly to repair.”