COVID-19 milestone: There were more cars stolen in the City of Los Angeles in April than during any month in at least a decade. Though the full data from May is not tallied yet, it is on track to break that record.
While most of Los Angeles was stuck at home during the COVID-19 shutdown, car thieves were out in force. April had 1,814 cars reported stolen to the Los Angeles Police Department, a 25% jump from March. That was the highest monthly total since the LAPD began making its crime data publicly available in 2010.
During the first three weeks of May, there were 1,264 reports, a 43% increase from the same period a year ago. At that pace, May would set a new high for the city.
The rash of stolen vehicles was widespread across the county. The Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, which patrols areas from Malibu to Lancaster, also saw a spike in its numbers. In April, it received 1,089 reports of stolen vehicles, a 32% increase from March and the most in a single month over the past three years.
COVID-19 crime patterns
The data is the latest example of how the COVID-19 shutdown has upended daily rhythms. Morning commutes have been replaced by working from home, or not working at all. Most parking citations in the City of Los Angeles have been suspended, making it easier to leave a car on the street for days at a time. That turns the curbside into an automall for thieves.
While car thefts have spiked, overall crime in the city has plummeted. The first quarter of 2020 saw a 14.5% decrease in crime in the City of Los Angeles when compared with the same period last year. The drop in April was even steeper, at 18%.
Yet vehicle thefts are still climbing. The LAPD did not respond to repeated questions about the increase.
Car thefts began to rise soon after Mayor Eric Garcetti issued the stay-at-home order in mid-March. By April, the amount of weekly reports were an average of 31% higher than they were during the first 10 weeks of the year.
This trend isn’t unique to LA. Car thefts rose 63% in New York from Jan. 1, 2020 to mid-May, compared with the same period in 2019. In Austin, vehicle thefts were 50% higher in April than during the same month last year.
More parking, more auto thefts
The nationwide increase is “counterintuitive,” says Frank Scafidi, a former FBI agent now with the National Insurance Crime Bureau. “Most people are at home, not at work, where you’d think vehicles would be safer. But it depends on what kind of parking situation you have.”
In fact, the decision in the City of Los Angeles and other areas to stop issuing many types of parking tickets might have been a boon to thieves. That makes it easier to keep a car on the street, even for days at a time, without worrying about a fine.
But it also places your car on display for those looking to steal it. “No parking tickets, that’s going to increase opportunities for thieves,” said Scafidi.
The severe unemployment and economic stress caused by the COVID-19 shutdown might also play a role. During the 2008 recession, there was an increase in instances of owners hiding vehicles and then reporting them stolen, either to collect insurance or to not pay a lease.
“We might be seeing more of that now as well,” said Scafidi, though he cautioned that it was too early to see that reflected in the data.
The high point for auto theft in the U.S. was in 1991, when nearly 1.7 million vehicles were reported stolen. California marked its all-time high the following year, with more than 320,000 cases. But there have been substantial decreases since then. In 2018, auto theft was less than half those levels.
Mike Bender, a consultant to insurance companies about auto theft and author of a guide on how to track stolen vehicles, said that the COVID-19 shutdown may have changed incentives for car thieves. The decision of many law enforcement agencies to not bring crime suspects into custody for fear of overcrowding jails means that, “We’re in a catch-and-release phase right now,” he said. An experienced thief might be caught, but then is back out again quickly.
Boyle Heights topped the list in April for the neighborhood with the most stolen cars in the City of Los Angeles, with 63. It was followed by Sun Valley, which had 55, and Westlake, which had 51. Next on the list were Downtown and Historic South Central, with 46 and 45 respectively.
There are numerous easy steps to take to reduce the risk of theft, however, including using secondary locking devices, such as clubs placed on a steering wheel, and tracking devices to keep tabs on your car. The Automobile Club of Southern California also recommends parking in a garage or well-lit area overnight.
How we did it: We examined publicly available LAPD data as well as publicly available LASD data on reported crime. For neighborhood boundaries, we rely on the borders defined by the Los Angeles Times. Learn more about our data here.
LAPD data only reflect crimes that are reported to the department, not how many crimes actually occurred. In making our calculations, we rely on data the LAPD makes publicly available.
The LAPD does periodically update past crime reports with new information, which sometimes leads them to recategorize past reports. Those revised reports do not always automatically become part of the public database. We try to update our reporting when new data becomes available.
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