SEAN Powell remembers the bad old days.
In the mid-1990s, the veteran RCMP corporal, a rookie in Coquitlam at the time, saw cars stolen on a continual basis.
"In 1996, auto theft was off the rails," said Powell, who now oversees North Vancouver's property crimes unit. "We were getting - I don't know the exact numbers - but I'm going to say a couple of cars a day."
The epidemic wasn't limited to his jurisdiction. Across B.C., autos were vanishing in huge numbers. By 2002, the phenomenon was becoming a central part of he Lower Mainland news cycle, with the RCMP declaring Surrey the "Car Theft Capital of North America," beating out New York and L.A. in per-capita terms by a factor of four. The North Shore was no exception. That year 705 cars were stolen in North and West Vancouver, and the number was climbing.
But about eight years ago, things started to change. Auto thefts across the province began a steep decline that continues to this day. By 2011, thefts had dropped to slightly more than 13,000 in British Columbia from a peak of almost 40,000 in 2003.
The story behind this dramatic about-face underscores a shift in the social fabric of our community, and shows how technology, smarter policing and demographics have conspired to turn the tide against a century-old criminal art.
The beginning of the end
When B.C.'s auto theft figures are plotted on a graph, the picture that emerges is startling. Since 2003, the number of cars stolen in the province has dropped by an average of roughly 2,500 every year, creating a nearly straight, precipitous slope downwards. As of last year, the total decline had reached 67 per cent, easily outstripping the drops in other types of crime. The pattern has been repeated to one degree or another in most areas of the country, and the North Shore has been part of it: Over those eight years, thefts here fell 76 per cent, to just 193 in 2011.
When the experts are asked what's behind it, they point to a broad range of factors, but perhaps the biggest and least appreciated has been a simple change in technology.
The hot wirer's undoing
In late 2007, Canada quietly passed a law forcing carmakers to fit all new passenger vehicles with immobilizers, electronic gizmos that make hotwiring nearly impossible. Before the change, all a car thief had to do to start a car was imitate the function of a key by closing a circuit in the steering column. In some models, this involved little more than jamming a screwdriver into the ignition.
But modern cars, equipped with the new electronic defences, take a lot more effort and know-how. In addition to the closed circuit, the engine also has to receive a code from a transponder embedded in the head of the key. In the absence of that signal, the immobilizer cuts power to several vital systems, preventing the engine from starting. Without the right key, a would-be car thief is going nowhere.
"Immobilizers don't make it entirely impossible to steal a car, but they make it really, really, really, really hard," said Paul Brantingham, a professor of criminology at SFU. "You have to have a lot of technical expertise or you have to have a lot of capital equipment to do it."
The effect can be seen in the list of most commonly stolen cars published annually by insurers. Of Canadian car thieves' top-10 picks last year, nine were 2007 or older, and six were pre2003. They're not being targeted because they're valuable, according to insurers, but because they're easy to steal.
"What you're seeing is as time goes on and more vehicles have the immobilizers . . . is this long-term decline in auto theft," said Rick Dubin, vice-president of investigative services at the Insurance Bureau of Canada, adding that the change likely started before 2007 because some 80 per cent of manufacturers had already begun installing them.
But while this technology is clearly a big factor, it's not the whole story.
Murder by numbers
Despite the claims of some diehard pundits, crime has been in retreat in Canada, the United States and much of the Western World for 20 years.
In 2003, slightly more than 500,000 criminal offences were reported to police in B.C., according to the Ministry of Justice. By 2011, that figure had dropped to about 360,000.
And no, according to the experts, this isn't a result of victims failing to call them in.
"It's not under-reporting," said SFU's Brantingham, discussing the results of large-scale crime studies conducted in the United States that found similar declines. "They (did) huge victimization surveys. . . . It's a continuously rolling sample, huge and very effective."
So what's behind the wider trend?
"Criminologists are working hard to try and figure that out," he said, with a laugh. "It may be that there's a different explanation every place you go."
Popular wisdom would have it that it's demographics: Older people don't commit crimes, and our population is getting old. Indeed, there's likely some truth to that assumption.
"The bulk of people who are going to commit crime have got it out of their system and done the stupid thing by age 22 or so," said Brantingham.
A Stats Can report from 2008 put the number of 16-year-olds accused of auto theft in Canada at about 320 per 100,000, compared to, for instance, about 25 per 100,000 for 45-year-olds - suggesting a kid in his mid-teens is almost 13 times more likely to try taking a car. But while the dwindling proportion of youngsters in our populace has no doubt influenced crime rates, it doesn't appear to be playing as big a role as one might expect.
"There have been a bunch of people in the States who have crunched numbers big time, led by Al Bloomstein, (a well regarded criminologist at Carnegie Mellon University)," said Brantingham. "They think the demographics can only account for something like 10 per cent, or in the most optimistic scenarios 20 per cent of things."
Clearly something else is at work, he said. With respect to the recent improvement in crime in the Lower Mainland, he suggested new tactics in policing might be playing a central role.
To understand this, one has to understand a little about who's doing the stealing:
The myth of the chop shop
There is a perception in the public, possibly a product of pop culture, that stolen cars wind up resold or in chop shops, where gangs of skilled criminals strip them for parts. But the numbers don't support this - not in B.C., anyway.
The majority of stolen cars are recovered intact after having been abandoned by the thief - the Insurance Bureau of Canada puts the figure above 80 per cent. Generally speaking, according to police, they are stolen for transport or to help accomplish another crime.
North Vancouver's Powell, gave an example from earlier this year: "We had one guy coming here to the North Shore late at night. . . . He'd walk around breaking into cars and then at 3 o'clock in the morning, to get home the buses aren't running anymore, so he'd steal a car. . . . Some cars do get chopped and sold for parts - that does happen - but I haven't seen any major operations like that for quite some time."
The exceptions are newer cars that fall prey to criminal organizations who resell them out of province or overseas. They're getting around immobilizers either by swiping cars that are warming up in the driveway or, less frequently, by stealing the keys from inside a home, according to ICBC.
"The cars are being containerized very quickly and taken to the port with the intention of exporting them to West Africa, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, etc." said Dubin.
But that problem is centred in Eastern Canada, and in particular Montreal, he said. If your car has vanished out here on the coast, the odds are it wasn't the mob who took it, but rather some petty thief. What's more, these opportunists appear to be drawn from a tiny but prolific collection of offenders.
"Across North America, the worst one per cent (of criminals) account for a 10th of all the crimes," said Brantingham. "The worst 10 per cent account for something approaching half the crimes; and the worst 20 per cent account for about 80 per cent of the crimes. It's a small group."
Police in the Lower Mainland have started to use the pattern to their advantage.
BUILDING A SMARTER COP
About eight years ago, police forces in Metro Vancouver started integrating crime analysis in a serious way into their approach to enforcement. West Vancouver police and North Vancouver RCMP have been part of that and, according to Brantingham, the results have been dramatic, especially when compared to other provinces.
Nowadays, when your home in North or West Vancouver is burgled, the information doesn't just stay in a filing cabinet at the station; it gets entered into a database for use by an analyst, who can slice and dice and plot the numbers to help focus police resources.
One practice that has arisen out of this is the systematic targeting of prolific offenders. Often when a pattern of crime emerges - a cluster of thefts in a given neighbourhood, say - it turns out to be the work of a single busy individual. So rather than investigate each incident in isolation, police zero in on the likely culprit in all of them.
Once investigators have someone in their sights, they can then keep a bead on him or her (usually him) until they catch him red-handed. It may not result in prosecution for the whole string of crimes, but it can at least put a stop to it.
Powell said he has seen the effects first hand.
"We'll have a rash of B&Es in one area - a guy coming over from Vancouver or whatever - and we'll end up arresting that guy and B&Es will just stop," he said. "They won't even taper off; we just won't get any B&Es in that area again for a long period of time."
The Insurance Bureau of Canada says the overall decline in car theft has done more than curb a common annoyance; it has saved the country both money and lives. Car thieves, who are sometimes high and may drive recklessly to evade police, were killing about 40 people a year in Canada as of 2007, according to the bureau.
That number is expected to drop as the practice dwindles. And in Ontario, which has seen a similar decline to B.C.'s, the cost of claims has fallen from about $152 million in 2007 to $93 million last year.
As a criminal pastime, auto theft isn't dead yet. But if the numbers paint an accurate picture, it doesn't have long to live.
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