After pandemic spike, car thefts in Los Angeles are declining

Stolen vehicle count is still well above pre-COVID level

Car reposessions illustration


In the city of Los Angeles last year, police fielded 25,452 reports of stolen vehicles. It was the highest annual total since at least 2010, and continued a trend that had begun with the onset of the pandemic.


Yet there are indications that numbers may have peaked. Car thefts have decreased in each of the last three quarters, according to publicly available Los Angeles Police Department data. In the first four months of 2023, there were 7,771 reports of stolen vehicles. That is a 9.2% decrease from the same period last year.


The LAPD recorded 1,857 car thefts in April, down from over 2,000 the previous month. The pandemic high occurred in October 2021, when 2,388 vehicles were reported stolen. 


Line chart of monthly vehicle thefts since 2019


Car thefts began rising across the country soon after COVID-19 shutdowns began. Early on, opportunistic thieves were taking advantage of vehicles that were sitting on the street for days or weeks on end.  


Police are not sure why car thefts are declining, but in an email to Crosstown, LAPD spokesman Officer Drake Madison said the change is welcome.


“It could be due to citizens making it harder for criminals to steal cars (i.e. car alarms, steering wheel locks, parking in more secure areas, etc.),” Madison said. “It could be due to officers providing extra patrols, arresting the car thieves, etc. It could be a combination of both.”


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Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department Lt. Oscar Veloz, who is part of the multi-agency Task Force for Regional Auto Theft Prevention (also known as TRAP), theorized that car thefts decreased after “zero bail” provisions were lifted in mid-2022. Shortly after the pandemic began, many alleged car thieves were cited instead of being taken to jail, which Veloz believes contributed to the rise in such incidents.  


That changed last year, meaning cash bail was required for many misdemeanor and non-violent felony offenses. However, Superior Court Judge Lawrence Riff recently ruled that holding someone because they cannot pay bail likely infringes on their constitutional rights. This means that, as of May 24, the LAPD and LASD cannot require bail for certain individuals before their arraignment.  


Veloz said this might result in a spike in car thefts. In a Police Commission meeting Tuesday morning, LAPD Chief Michel Moore also said he is concerned that the new provisions will undo the “gains” the department experienced in car thefts and other crimes.


Busy area, active thieves

In recent years, car-filled Downtown has been the epicenter of vehicle theft in the city. That has continued in 2023. From Jan. 1–April 30, 467 vehicles were reported stolen in Downtown, more than any other neighborhood. That puts the community far above Van Nuys (260) and Boyle Heights (237).  


Table of neighborhoods in Los Angeles with most vehicle thefts so far in 2023


According to police data, 5,960 of the cars that went missing in the first four months of this year, or 77% of the total, were parked on the street. The second-most common location, with 1,112 vehicles stolen, was parking lots. 


While the decline in the first part of 2023 is welcome, vehicle thefts remain historically high. The number of cars reported stolen in the first four months of the year is 47% greater than the count from Jan. 1–April 30, 2019.


Bar chart of Jan-April vehicle thefts over 5 years


Worse in other cities

The downturn in Los Angeles car thefts is counter to trends in some other major metropolitan areas. In New York City, car thefts from Jan. 1–May 21 this year are 16.3% higher than in the same period last year, according to NYPD Compstat data.


The situation is worse in Chicago. The more than 11,000 car thefts from Jan. 1–May 28 marks a 133% increase over the same period in 2022, according to Chicago Police Department Compstat figures.


Media reports in New York and Chicago attribute the rise in part to the “Kia Challenge,” a social media trend that began in 2021, with videos exposing vulnerabilities in the ignition system of certain Kia and Hyundai models that made them easy to steal. Last summer, Moore explained how that contributed to rising theft figures in Los Angeles.  


Kia and Hyundai have agreed to pay $200 million to owners of vulnerable, stolen or damaged cars. Although efforts have been made to repair the problem, some vehicles are still being taken.


Other factors have contributed to the increase in Los Angeles. In the past, Moore and other LAPD officials pointed to drivers who park and forget to take their key fob from a cup holder, making things easy for thieves.


Moore has also said in the past that many of the vehicles taken are recovered several days later, often in the same neighborhood. That, he said, indicated that the motivating factor was often stealing a car to use for transportation or joyriding, as opposed to dismantling for parts or shipping overseas.


Still, efforts continue to help drivers thwart theft. Last week, TRAP posted a Facebook video reminding people of simple steps, such as ensuring car doors are locked and windows closed, not leaving keys inside or near the vehicle, and parking in a well-lit area.


How we did it: We examined publicly available crime data from the Los Angeles Police Department from Jan 1, 2010–April 30, 2023. 


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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