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Know your local car thief

Who's stealing all those cars?

That, in 2002, was the burning question facing Winnipeg police---and Manitoba Public Insurance which was paying the cost.

Or, as the authors of the submission from the Winnipeg Auto Theft Suppression Strategy put it in their submission to the Herman Goldstein Award for Excellence in Problem-Oriented Policing “Why was auto theft so attractive to young people that some would go out in -30 C weather to spend the day stealing 5 cars?”

MPI forked out some money to get the answer. They had to. The problem was costing them millions. And it was getting worse by the year.

Starting the very next year, 2003, to 2007, Winnipeg had the worst car theft problem in North America. In 2007, the theft rate here was 1714 per 100,000 of population. The city with the highest rate in the United States was Modesto, California, at 1048/100,000. The cost to MPI would eventually climb to nearly $40 million a year.

In 2002 MPI funded a study of jailed car thieves to get their answer.( “Pilot Study of Juvenile Auto Theft Offenders.” Jeff Anderson and Rick Linden, Unpublished paper, University of Manitoba.) The lives of 43 of the city's worst car thieves told them this story (as revealed in the WATSS award submission):

• Most lived in single-parent families. Over half had run away from home at least once. Respondents reported a high rate of criminal involvement among immediate family members.
• Respondents were not successful in school. They were 2-3 years below expected grade levels, and had high rates of truancy, suspension and expulsion.
• Average age of first involvement was 12 and the average age when they began stealing cars themselves was 13.
• Respondents were involved in a range of offenses in addition to vehicle theft.
• Most did little planning and seemed willing to steal cars any place and any time.
They used the vehicles for joyriding and for short-term transportation and usually just abandoned the vehicles.
• Respondents enjoyed the thrill-seeking dimensions of vehicle theft, which helps to explain why they often stole several vehicles in a day. Their thefts appeared to be a way of gaining status.
• Peers were important. Many respondents reported gang associations. Virtually all had friends who stole cars and most reported peer pressure to steal cars. This supports the conclusion that there is an extensive adolescent car theft culture in some parts of Winnipeg.
Respondents had high rates of drug and alcohol use and were involved in a thrill-seeking lifestyle that included vehicle theft.
• Some targets were clearly more attractive than others. There was a strong preference for stealing older Chrysler vehicles.
• Most respondents were not concerned about the consequences and any fear they had was not sufficient to overcome the thrill of stealing cars or the peer pressure.

A few other points of the problem facing police popped out.

• Clearance rates were around 10 percent, indicating that conventional investigative and enforcement tactics were not effective. Analysis of court statistics showed that sentences for vehicle theft were typically very light, again suggesting that conventional youth justice measures would not alleviate the problem.

• Auto theft was part of the youth culture in some Winnipeg neighbourhoods. This conclusion was based on interviews with young offenders, and was reinforced by interviews with police, probation officers, and prosecutors.

Clamping down on repeat car thieves was one component of WATSS. The other was forcing motorists to install immobilizers. The award submission contains some insight into the success of that element of the program...

The Effectiveness of Electronic Immobilizers
The immobilizer program has been very successful. As of May, 2009 about 85 percent of the most at-risk vehicles had immobilizers installed. None of these immobilizers has been defeated. A small number of immobilized vehicles have been stolen, but these have resulted from people leaving their keys in the vehicle or from the theft of keys.
Installations of most at-risk vehicles will be complete by September, 2009. At that time, at least 75 percent of Winnipeg’s vehicles will have effective immobilizers.

Public Support
There was potential resistance to the compulsory immobilizer program. The city’s major newspaper editorialized that the program was “An Abuse of Power” and a popular tabloid columnist wrote several stories describing how after-market immobilizers could ruin vehicles and result in major disruptions to owners. The Task Force responded quickly to these attempts to shape public opinion. More importantly, MPI implemented a rigorous quality control program to ensure that installers and installation facilities were certified, carefully trained, and monitored by an independent standards organization.

They also established an Immobilizer Quality Control Group that people could call to ensure an immediate response to any problems with immobilizers. As a result , the failure rate of immobilizers was extremely low and the issue quickly disappeared as a public concern.


This mandatory program was phased in over 12 months. However, crime analysts noted that as favourite targets were protected, offenders began to target other vehicles, particularly those equipped with the General Motors Passlock II immobilizer....

While these immobilizers do offer some security, several of our experienced offenders had learned how to defeat them and passed this knowledge on to their peers.
Consequently, when installations of the first list were completed in September, 2008, a second list of most at-risk vehicles was established. Immobilizer installations in these vehicles will be completed September, 2009. Thus far there is no evidence of serious displacement to other types of vehicles. Because the remaining vehicles include a diverse range of makes and models (typically low-volume models), it is unlikely that offenders will develop enough expertise in stealing them to significantly affect theft rates. Also, technical experts believe that some actually have effective immobilizers but have not gone through the formal approval process

MPI says the success of WATSS in reducing auto theft by more than 75 percent has resulted in savings estimated to be at least $30 million per year.

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