LANGLEY, B.C. - A car or truck is stolen every 13 minutes in Washington State; the auto theft rate is now the seventh highest in the nation.
So when KIRO 7 discovered that British Columbia has had huge success tackling the crime, we sent a crew north of the border to check out the tool that’s getting much of the credit.
Parked in an airplane hangar in Langley, B.C., police displayed a specially equipped Dodge Charger. It’s a bait car that they routinely position in parts of the province where they hope it will get stolen.
What thieves don’t realize is that as soon as they break into it, an alarm goes off at a police communications center. A camera hidden in the car starts streaming live audio and video of the bad guys directly to the cops.
A global positioning system tracks the car’s movements. When officers are close enough to make an arrest, they can remotely shut down the bait car’s engine, leaving the thieves stranded. Thieves are often caught on video cursing as the cops close in or cowering with fear.
On one bait car video, we heard a police dog barking as the thief said, “Just don’t hurt me, please, just don’t hurt me. Please don’t let the dog chew me.”
The drop in vehicle thefts has been dramatic. In 2003, 26,000 vehicles were stolen in British Columbia. By last year, that number had dropped to 6,400. That is a whopping 75 percent decrease in auto theft.
“That is a remarkable statistic,” said British Columbia’s Attorney General, Suzanne Anton.
Anton gives bait cars much of the credit along with IMPACT, the Integrated Municipal Provincial Auto Crime Team. It was formed a decade ago to tackle the auto theft problem. IMPACT claims to have the largest bait car program in the world, but the inspector in charge, Peter Jadis, won't reveal how many he's got. He won’t say whether he’s got five vehicles or 500.
“It’s part of the strategy,” said Jadis.
Instead, the message that's repeated on billboards and TV broadcasts is that bait cars are everywhere. If you steal one, you'll go to jail.
If bait cars are working so well in Canada, we wondered why we hadn't heard much about them in Washington.
Lt. Keith Huntley of the Washington State Patrol said auto theft investigators did try them with limited success. The state patrol used them on a much smaller scale than Canada. From 2004 to 2009, it had only six bait car deployments, which led to 10 arrests.
Huntley and other investigators told us there were often equipment problems with early versions of bait cars. Tracking and monitoring them was complicated. Using them required a lot of manpower.
“It’s a tool, and we have a number of other tools that we use, but we’re kind of going away from the bait car program right now,” said Huntley.
While Washington law enforcement agencies are cutting back, British Columbia is expanding its bait car program. It now includes trucks, trailers, construction equipment, even boats and snowmobiles.
Inspector Peter Jadis said in British Columbia, it works.