When the coronavirus pandemic hit Los Angeles last year, and people started leaving their cars parked on the streets for extended periods, opportunistic thieves pounced. By the end of 2020, a total of 21,313 cars had been stolen in the city, according to publicly accessible data from the Los Angeles Police Department. That is a more than 35% increase from the prior year.
One neighborhood was hit harder than any other: In the Eastside’s Boyle Heights, 746 cars were taken.
While the figure is shocking, it is no anomaly: More vehicles have been stolen in Boyle Heights than in any other neighborhood every year from 2012-2020. In fact, in that period, 5,522 cars were stolen—the next most frequently victimized community was Van Nuys, where 4,423 cars were taken in that timeframe.
The 746 car thefts in densely populated Boyle Heights last year was nearly a 30% increase from 2019. Another 534 vehicle thefts have already occurred in the community this year. For the first time in nearly a decade, however, another neighborhood is seeing more cars taken—through Sept. 20, 654 cars in Downtown have gone missing.
Corey Witte, senior advisor to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, said that before the coronavirus, auto thefts had been trending downwards. He described the temporary closure of nonessential businesses and other moves that kept vehicles parked for extended periods as a “perfect storm” for an increase in stolen automobiles.
“There was also unemployment,” said Witte. “We had schools closed, lack of social outreach programs, and we also had a lot of cars that were just stagnant. People weren’t having to drive.”
The zero bail issue
LAPD officials have also cited the “zero bail” policy in Los Angeles County jails. Instituted to reduce the spread of the coronavirus, it eliminated the bail requirement for low-level felonies and misdemeanors, meaning many accused thieves were back on the streets quickly.
In fact, last year police in Glendora arrested a man three times in one day for stealing cars.
One factor that makes Boyle Heights particularly prone to car theft is that many of the vehicles in the largely working-class neighborhood are older Toyotas and Hondas, some of the easiest models for thieves to steal because their ignitions can be easily manipulated.
Barry Allen, a Boyle Heights resident, said a friend’s Honda Civic was stolen from the area this year. Days after it went missing, Allen saw the presumed thief driving it. He tried to follow the car on his skateboard, but lost track of the vehicle.
“But we knew the guy was in the area. So the next day we drove around Boyle Heights looking for the stolen car and we found the guy and chased him until police arrested him,” said Allen.
Density and the fob factor
Another possible element in the high theft rate is density. Boyle Heights has more than 16,000 residents per square mile and finding a place to park can be a challenge. As a result, car owners sometimes leave their vehicles in unsupervised and unsafe areas.
Even before the pandemic, vehicle theft represented about 18% of all crime in the city, according to the LAPD.
While experienced car thieves can steal a vehicle in less than a minute, sometimes owners are making it extremely easy—blame keyless technology.
“Key fobs have made our lives easier in so many ways,” said Witte, “but we have seen an uptick in vehicles that are stolen because now people jump in the car, throw their key fob in the cupholder, and they go about their business and they just totally forget about it. Leaving that key fob in the car is one of the primary reasons that we continue to see so many stolen vehicles.”
During the pandemic, many stolen cars in L.A. were recovered nearby, leading police to conclude that “joyriding” was a common motivation.
To prevent your car from being stolen, the LAPD recommends never leaving your car running while unattended, never leaving keys in your vehicle, always locking your car and parking in well-lit areas.
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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