Car thieves beware: Federal Way is cracking down

Auto theft is an unceasing problem in Washington state, but Federal Way is a leader in reducing the crime.

A decrease in King County auto theft is taking place, King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg said Dec. 3 at a Federal Way Chamber of Commerce luncheon highlighting local auto theft efforts. Use of bait cars, information sharing and participation in task forces are driving factors in the decline. Federal Way is a shining example of how coordinated efforts between prosecutors and police agencies can put a dent in crime.

“We’ve had fun and some success by working together with police,” Satterberg said.

Compared to 2005, Federal Way auto theft in 2007 was 40.31 percent lower, Federal Way Police Chief Brian Wilson said. It dropped 8.1 percent since this time last year, he said. In 2005, 1,573 vehicles were stolen in the city. Thus far this year, 658 have been stolen.

“We are making progress but I still think 658 is a lot,” Wilson said. “But 1,573 is horrible.”

Police use bait cars to catch thieves. The commodities are parked in known hot spots for auto thieves. Once they are stolen, police can remotely turn off the engine and lock the suspect inside the automobile. Federal Way implements two bait cars. A video was shown at the luncheon to demonstrate the cars’ success in Federal Way.

On August 4, 2007, a 17-year-old male attempted to steal a vehicle from a park and ride lot. As sirens sounded in the background, the car’s engine died and the steering went out. The teenager, realizing he is caught red-handed, tried to escape the car.

“He’s trapped like a bug under glass,” Satterberg said.

The cars have been stolen nine times, prowled 12 times and used to make 13 arrests, Wilson said. They have assisted in catching criminals who routinely swipe vehicles.

“The people who’ve stolen them have been prolific auto thieves,” Wilson said. “That is not the first vehicle they’ve stolen.”

The auto theft crack down began in the prosecuting attorney’s office a few years back. Prosecutors created a top-20 list of auto thieves and stirred excitement among police agencies in an effort to track the suspects’ actions. Now, when a thief is caught stealing a vehicle, agencies coordinate to bring several charges at once, helping to ensure a stricter punishment.

“The catch-and-release policy works great for trout,” Satterberg said. “It’s not so great for car thieves. You know if you’ve been caught and convicted seven times, you’ve probably done it 700 times.”

Before 2007, a person needed seven auto theft convictions before he or she spent a prolonged amount of time in jail.

“It was right there with stealing your $250 jacket from Nordstrom,” Satterberg said. “There was a huge disconnect. We had the wrong price tag on this crime.”

In July 2007, House Bill 1001 went into effect. Three convictions now land a person in jail for 17 to 22 months. Those convicted of stealing four or more vehicles face 43 to 57 months in jail. As a result of the law, the Washington Auto Theft Prevention Authority task force was created.

Members from the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, Washington State Patrol, police chiefs, sheriffs, a prosecuting attorney, representatives from the insurance and automobile industries and one member from the general public make up the committee. Federal Way business owner Merle Pfeifer currently holds a position.

The organization distributes grant money to public agencies that propose ways to decrease auto theft in Washington. The money comes from a portion of the state’’s traffic infraction fines. This past July, the authority awarded $1.3 million to 17 South King County law enforcement agencies, including Federal Way, which created the Preventing Auto Theft Through Operational Links (PATROL) task force. Federal Way Lt. Tracy Grossnickle supervises the force. The multi-jurisdictional effort owns a $30,000 piece of equipment called a Police ALPR Graphical Interface System, also known as a license plate scanner.

The machinery relies on cameras mounted on the top of a vehicle to scan nearby license plates and run them through a database. It looks for vehicles or plates reported stolen in the United States and Canada, as well as licenses associated with felonies or Amber Alerts. If a match is found, the system displays a high-alert notification.

Cutting auto theft helps the city slash other crimes too, Wilson said. Many auto thieves partake in other illegal activities, such as stealing mail, he said. Federal Way has witnessed a decrease in its per capita crime rate in the past eight of 10 years, Wilson said. In 2006, the city experienced a 14.8 percent decrease in index crimes — homicides, assaults, burglary and auto theft, for example.

Contact Jacinda Howard: or (253) 925-5565.

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