Motor vehicle thieves have been on a tear in metro Denver, more than doubling their haul over the last couple of years — from just under 13,000 automobiles stolen in 2019 to more than 27,000 last year.

The sharp spike in vehicle heists has landed Colorado at the top of the list of all states for per capita auto thefts, with just over 500 stolen vehicles per 100,000 residents, according to data compiled by the National Insurance Crime Bureau. Only Washington, D.C. did worse.

That grim reality last month prompted Glendale, an enclave city surrounded by Denver, to do something it had never done before: become a member of the Metropolitan Auto Theft Task Force.

“We have noticed a steep increase consistent with the metro area,” Glendale Police Chief W.J. Haskins said. “The car could be stolen in Littleton, used in a robbery of a dispensary in Thornton and dumped in Glendale. By working with (the task force), we will be able to put together more complex cases and find someone who steals cars across the metro.”

The six-county task force, which Glendale will officially join in July, ranks the city as the top target for car thieves on a per capita basis in Colorado, though that unenviable designation is somewhat misleading given Glendale’s large daytime influx of office workers and shoppers versus its residential population of approximately 5,200.

Still, the numbers are disconcerting. So far this year in Glendale, every month has yielded more vehicle thefts than the corresponding month in the previous year, with a total of 79 stolen vehicles recorded through the end of April.

But joining the task force, which consists of Glendale assigning one of its officers to the organization on a full-time basis, won’t be enough to end the car stealing scourge, warns City Manager Chuck Line.

More substantive changes are needed, especially at the legislative level, where Line says criminal justice reform efforts in the last few years have gone too far. He cites lighter sentencing guidelines, bond reform bills and more lenient charges for property crimes as central to Colorado’s auto theft problem.

“It’s not a lack of police coverage — it’s a lack of prosecution,” he said. “It can’t be a ‘get-out-of-jail-card’ for everybody. If we lower the chance these people have to face justice, then they’re acting rationally when they steal a car.”

Rep. Leslie Herod, a long-time voice in favor of criminal justice reform efforts at the state Capitol, couldn’t disagree more. The idea that locking people up will solve the problem of motor vehicle theft is facile thinking, she said.

The country is still dealing with a once-in-a-century pandemic, which has upended fundamental societal foundations and support systems and driven many people to desperation, Herod said. The job market has been through convulsions and buying a house is out of reach for many.

Case in point, she said, are rising auto theft numbers across the nation in the last couple of years — not just in Colorado. The Council on Criminal Justice found that motor vehicle theft rates were 14% higher across the United States in 2021 than in 2020.

“We know these penalties don’t act as deterrents,” Herod said. “Whether you’re a reform state or not a reform state, crime is up.”

Too much leniency

While the explosion in catalytic converter thefts from vehicles in Colorado has garnered the majority of headlines recently, the theft of vehicles in their entirety is far more prevalent.

Colorado was already coming off a rough patch for auto thefts before last year, with a 33% rise in stolen vehicles statewide in 2020 over 2019. That followed relatively stable levels in the category during the previous several years — there was even a 5% decline in stolen vehicles three years ago.

But the pandemic, which started in Colorado in early March 2020, ushered in a massive surge in vehicles disappearing from parking lots and neighborhood streets. From an average of 36 cars stolen a day in metro Denver in 2019, the number jumped to 55 in 2020 and to 75 last year, according to the task force.

The theft of 27,443 vehicles in metro Denver had an economic impact of $243 million last year, using the FBI’s economic impact estimate of $8,886 per stolen vehicle. Lakewood Police Cmdr. Mike Greenwell, who heads up the Metropolitan Auto Theft Task Force, said what often goes unmentioned are the victims of this crime.

“What bothers me is what that does to our communities in terms of victims,” said Greenwell, noting that low-income families are often left marooned when their only car vanishes. “These people can’t afford it.”

He points directly at recent laws that have made the consequences for stealing a car “more lenient, more lenient, more lenient.” And that has led to an increasing number of repeat offenders who see little incentive to stop what they are doing.

“The discouraging part is seeing these same people over and over again,” Greenwell said. “What’s to dissuade them from stealing another car?”

Haskins, Glendale’s chief of police, said he feels like his hands are tied much of the time.

“We’re too often being forced to release people on personal recognizance bonds,” he said. “The people who put forward this legislation have the best of intentions but the unintended consequence of the bills is that it has reduced our ability to get people to stop committing these crimes.”

Mitch Morrissey, a former Denver prosecutor and a fellow at the Common Sense Institute, shared similar concerns with legislators before the start of this year’s session through a report on crime trends he helped author.

His publication received little interest at the state Capitol, he said.

What he found is that since 2008, the state prison population has gone down by 23% while crime has increased by 47%. Of those arrested in Denver last year, 65% had at least one prior arrest since 2018 while nearly a third had five or more arrests in that time.

Yet, Denver has increased the use of personal recognizance bonds by 61% over the last two years, the Common Sense Institute report concluded. In 2020, Denver courts issued nearly 600 $0, $1 or $2 bonds — a sharp increase over levels in previous years.

“The cars are getting stolen and there’s no accountability for it,” said Morrissey, a lifelong Democrat. “Guys are back on the street the next day and committing more crimes.”

Problem runs deeper

Director of advocacy for the ACLU of Colorado, Taylor Pendergrass, said he’s heard it all before. And he’s not buying it.

“If you’re looking for the cause of why auto theft is up 107% (since 2019), the most likely culprit is economic insecurity, lack of economic opportunity and housing instability,” he said. “Crime has surged as people are stressed and have lost their jobs.”

Layer on top of that the “historic instability” of a global pandemic that has infected more than 82 million people and killed nearly 1 million in the United States alone, Pendergrass said, and it’s no wonder that crime has spiked.

The solution isn’t putting people behind bars after the fact, he said, but doing more to stop auto thefts before they occur. That includes installing better lighting in parking lots and other hot spot areas, increasing police patrols in areas where cases are on the rise and requiring that auto manufacturers include anti-theft technology in more of their vehicles.

“There are no data showing that pre-trial lockup reduces auto theft,” he said. “There are solutions to the auto theft problem that don’t involve arrests and are cheaper.”

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As far as laying blaming for rising crime at the feet of Democratic politicians, Pendergrass said the statistics don’t necessarily bear that out. According to homicide data crunched by Lisa Pasko, chair of the University of Denver’s Department of Sociology and Criminology, states led by majority Republican legislatures had big surges in killings, too.

While blue states like California, Colorado and Illinois had increases in murders eclipsing 30% between 2019 and 2020, a red state like Montana saw murders go up by 84% during that time frame. In a Republican state like South Dakota, that increase was 81%. In Kentucky, it was 62%.

In terms of auto thefts, the National Insurance Crime Bureau listed nearly as many red states (Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma) in its top ten per capita auto theft list as blue states (California, Washington, Oregon).

Herod said the problems are deeper than just getting tougher on criminals.

“These things need to be addressed at their root cause,” she said.

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