In the early months of the pandemic, vehicle theft in Los Angeles spiked to unprecedented levels. Public safety experts attributed the rise to opportunistic thieves who pounced when stay-at-home orders meant that cars were parked on public streets for extended periods.
Los Angeles traffic is getting thicker as the economy reopens. However, the expectation that more driving would tamp down auto thefts has not come to pass. Thieves are as active as ever.
According to publicly available data from the Los Angeles Police Department, cars continue to be picked off the street at a higher rate than before the pandemic. From Jan. 1-June 30, a total of 11,178 vehicles were reported stolen or attempted stolen, marking a 9% increase from the same period last year, and a 43.6% surge over the 7,782 thefts in the same time in 2019.
The number of stolen vehicles began increasing shortly after most in-person businesses were shut down in March 2020, and last June thieves set their sights on 2,142 cars, according to the LAPD, the highest monthly total in at least a decade. The 2020 tally of 21,313 vehicles stolen was also the highest figure in more than 10 years, and marked a more than 35% jump from 2019.
Monthly vehicle thefts in Los Angeles, July 2019-June 2021
The pace of thefts has remained steadily high in 2021. Every month has seen at last 1,800 vehicles stolen. In the approximately 10 years before the pandemic, Los Angeles averaged 1,360 car thefts per month.
While the monthly tally is elevated, it is also relatively stable, and every month from October 2020 through June 2021 saw between 1,801 and 1,907 thefts. Siage Hosea, an LAPD lieutenant who also works with the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department on the multi-agency Task Force for Regional Autotheft Prevention (or TRAP), said the steady numbers, rather than a continued spike, is promising.
“I think it’s going to taper off to a certain extent,” said Hosea. “But do I think that numbers are going to go all the way back down? That remains to be seen.”
Car thefts had actually been on the decline in Los Angeles before the pandemic hit. From 2017 to 2019, the city saw a 17.9% decrease in vehicles stolen. The low point in the past decade was 2014, when 13,953 cars were taken.
Annual vehicle thefts in Los Angeles, 2010-2021
Hosea warned that car thieves act quickly, and the time it takes for someone to realize their vehicle has been taken adds to the challenge of recovery.
“People don’t even know that their car is stolen,” Hosea said. “When they report the car stolen, the car is already parked somewhere and the suspect is done with it. So that makes it difficult to catch them while they’re in the car.”
Activity in dense neighborhoods
According to Hosea, dense neighborhoods are particularly prone to vehicle theft. In the first six months of the year, Downtown saw 1,171 vehicles go missing, the highest total of any Los Angeles neighborhood. According to the LAPD, 65.7% of those cars were parked on the street.
Yet car thieves have been busy across the city. The community with the second highest number of thefts was Boyle Heights, with 1,126. The third most-victimized community was Van Nuys, where 941 vehicles were taken.
Communities with the highest number of car thefts in 2021
While car thefts have been heightened in Los Angeles, the city is far from alone. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, part of the U.S. Department of Transportation, 721,855 vehicles were stolen in the country in 2019.
Hosea said specialized devices can deter thieves looking for an easy swiping opportunity. The NHTSA lists steering-wheel locks, theft-deterrent decals and alarms as tools that can help prevent a car from being taken.
LAPD data only reflects crimes that are reported to the department, not how many crimes actually occurred. In making our calculations, we rely on the data the LAPD makes publicly available. LAPD may update past crime reports with new information, or recategorize past reports. Those revised reports do not always automatically become part of the public database.
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