Tucson is shaking its reputation as an auto-theft hot spot.
Ten years ago the Tucson metro area ranked second in the nation for its rate of auto thefts per capita.
Now we rank 44th, and local police agencies have seen four straight years of below-average numbers of auto theft.
The drop mirrors the state and national trend. Auto thefts in Arizona are approaching a 25-year low.
The Arizona Automobile Theft Authority, a state agency funded by $1 a year from your insurance policy, says the decline is due to five factors:
• New technology. Manufacturers are issuing smart keys, which make cars harder to steal. And police are using license-plate scanners and equipping “bait cars” with tracking devices to catch thieves, said J.D. Hough, the authority’s lead investigator.
• A new state law. You can’t just call the police and say your car was stolen. Now you have to sign an affidavit, which has cut the number of cars reported stolen for insurance fraud, Hough said.
• Special police units. Agencies have assigned groups of detectives and officers to aggressively investigate auto-theft cases to bring numbers down.
• “Vertical prosecution.” A county prosecutor works with detectives to help build a solid case from the ground up.
• Public awareness. The theft authority focused on prevention with the Watch Your Car program, which put stickers of cars with eyes on many Arizona vehicles. Police are authorized to check the ownership of a vehicle during a late-night traffic stop when they see the sticker.
Oro Valley Police Chief Daniel Sharp, vice chairman of the authority, said the program is successful but has been scaled back due to budget cuts.
Auto theft has fallen so dramatically that police agencies in Glendale, Tempe, Mesa and Chandler have cut their special auto-theft units, Hough said.
That’s a risky move, Sharp said — while it happens less often, auto theft is still common at about 332 stolen cars for every 100,000 people. “We really need to stay true to what it is we’re doing and stay focused on that,” he said.
For example, thieves’ favorite places to steal cars are still big parking lots near highways, at places where people are going to be away from their car for a while — such as malls, restaurants and movie theaters, where a thief “can be an hour down the road before it’s even reported stolen,” Hough said.
And oftentimes thieves steal a vehicle to commit another crime, such as smuggling drugs, Sharp said.
The number of vehicles stolen for smuggling has dropped some, Hough said, but it still deserves special attention.
The authority has one special border squad in the Tucson area and hopes to fund another unit to cover Douglas and Nogales, Hough said.
The authority also works closely with the National Insurance Crime Bureau, which has agents who locate hundreds of stolen vehicles in Mexico each year and work with authorities to return them to the U.S.
New problems are emerging, too.
The state saw a spike in people stealing cars and selling them to scrap-metal dealers, Sharp said. With a heavy demand for metal overseas, the authority now is focusing on training dealers to recognize signs a vehicle might be stolen.
“It’s like a wave,” Hough said. “It comes in high, you fight it and get the criminal activity to drop off, and then the next wave will come in.”