Car thefts in Los Angeles rev up again

After a slight decline, stolen vehicles return to a record level

Illustration of a car door being pried open


When the coronavirus slammed into Los Angeles in March 2020, the number of car thefts in the city spiked almost instantly. This was interpreted as an unintended side effect of Mayor Eric Garcetti’s move to ease parking enforcement: With far fewer tickets being handed out, automobiles sat on the street for extended periods, sometimes days or weeks at a time. Opportunistic thieves pounced. 


Parking tickets are now being written at approximately 70% of the pre-pandemic level, and most Angelenos are back to driving on a more regular basis. Yet car thieves remain as active as they were when COVID-19 first arrived. In fact, the last quarter was almost the worst on record.

Car thefts in Los Angeles by quarter, 2018-2021

Line chart of car thefts by quarter 2018-2021

From July 1-Sept. 30 of this year, 5,956 vehicles were stolen in the city, according to publicly accessible LAPD data. This is only one fewer than the number taken from April 1-June 30, 2020. 


What makes this particularly disturbing is that after the immediate COVID-19 affiliated surge, car thefts had declined slightly. Yet the figure from the most recent quarter represents a 6.7% increase over the 5,583 vehicles that went missing from April to June of this year.


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The 17,195 cars stolen in the first nine months of 2021 puts the city on pace to record the highest annual tally of stolen vehicles in more than a decade. 

Car thefts in Los Angeles from Jan. 1-Sept. 30, 2016-2021

bar chart of car thefts Jan-Sept. 2016-2021

While more cars are going missing, Los Angeles Police Department Chief Michel Moore said they tend not to be directed to chop shops or sent overseas. During a Sept. 28 appearance before the Los Angeles Police Commission, Moore conceded that some vehicles are used for parts, but said that many owners get their car back, often within three to five days, indicating that stolen autos are frequently used as a means of transportation.


“The vast majority of vehicles that are stolen are being recovered. Sometimes they’re recovered in the very neighborhood in which they were taken,” he said. 


Danger on the roads

Despite the high recovery rate, Moore stressed that the consequences can be severe. He described an incident late last month in which a 68-year-old woman was struck and killed by someone driving a Land Rover that had been stolen two days before in Glendale. The driver, Moore said, ran a red light. 


Garcetti’s Safer at Home order went into effect on March 15, 2020. In the following 18 months, 33,985 cars were stolen in Los Angeles. That is a 40.6% increase from the 24,179 that went missing in the immediately prior 18-month period, from Sept. 15, 2018-March 14, 2020.


For most of the last decade, Boyle Heights has recorded more annual car thefts than any other Los Angeles neighborhood. Yet since the onset of the pandemic, Downtown has been the site of the most crimes. Other communities with high theft numbers include Westlake, Van Nuys and Historic South-Central.

Neighborhoods with most car thefts since pandemic began

Table with neighborhoods with most car thefts

Keep track of that fob

Some law-enforcement representatives have blamed the rise partly on the zero-bail system, which was instituted for non-violent crimes early in the pandemic in the effort to stanch transmission of the coronavirus in jails and prisons. They have asserted that with few immediate repercussions, people arrested and then released may soon steal another vehicle.


Moore said the LAPD has a “standing instruction” that if a car thief is released on zero bail and then arrested again, “we’ll work with the courts for an enhancement, because I believe those individuals pose a real danger and risk to public safety.”


While repeat offenders are part of the problem, Moore also acknowledged that some victims are making it too easy for thieves: He said people are leaving key fobs in their vehicle. Law enforcement personnel have particularly bemoaned those who toss a fob in a cup holder, then forget to take it out when they park.


“A significant amount [of stolen cars] are made in the last 10 years, and have fobs and other more sophisticated systems,” Moore said. “What we find is many times there’s access to those keys, and that if we can prevent that by the owners, by the operators, that I think can have a deterring effect.”


How we did it: We examined publicly available vehicle theft data from the Los Angeles Police Department from Jan. 1, 2010-Sept. 30, 2021. Learn more about our data here.


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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