Car thefts: When a national trend, car maker’s folly and Baltimore politics intersect | STAFF COMMENTARY

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Motor vehicle theft is a growing problem in the United States and not just in Baltimore. According to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, major cities have seen a 230% to 500% increase in recent years. Newer vehicles that use keyless entry and push-button ignitions can be more susceptible to theft. File. (Tribune Content Agency).

Baltimoreans can be parochial with the best of them, so it’s hardly surprising that the recent uptick in car thefts within Charm City has quickly driven some to question whether police and local officials have misfired on yet another public safety concern. City Councilman Zeke Cohen’s call for a hearing on the topic by the council subcommittee that oversees public safety, is notable for at least two reasons.

First, it’s safe to assume that the thieves are not exactly quaking in their boots at the thought that City Hall is going to discuss their behavior. But secondly, this is exactly the sort of occasion — a moment of legitimate public worry about trending crime — where the mayor usually steps up with some initiative to which the council reacts, with most members eventually climbing onboard. Maybe it’s “Deter Car Theft Day” or handing out fliers to educate city residents on the best ways to protect one’s vehicle. There are always steps, albeit modest, that can be taken to address ills, and car theft is no different in this respect. But more about the politics in a moment.


What city residents could use most right now is a dose of context. Yes, vehicle thefts have sharply risen in recent months (7,401 reported cases as of Sept. 9 compared to 2,304 during the same time period last year — three times as many.), but it follows a national trend. In the first six months of this year, the number of car thefts across the country was up 104% in 32 cities reporting data, according to a report from the Council on Criminal Justice nonpartisan think tank. There are believed to be a slew of factors at work, from economic hardship to competing responsibilities facing resource-stretched law enforcement agencies. One of the most significant has been the ease with which certain Hyundai and Kia models can be stolen because they lack so-called “engine immobilizers” (which is not the case with newer models or older ones that could handle a software update). The COVID-19 pandemic sparked a big boost in boosting vehicles, and the trend has continued particularly in cities including Baltimore, Philadelphia and Minneapolis.

It’s a mistake to see this as a concern for police alone, though. There are a number of steps car owners can take to protect their vehicles against theft. Those include parking in busy, well-lighted areas and adding a visible steering wheel lock (“The Club” is probably the best known of these, and the Baltimore Police Department handed out dozens at a giveaway last month). One might also install an aftermarket alarm, improve lighting around your home (assuming you park there), purchase a doorbell video camera that can monitor your vehicle and add a GPS tracking system to your car and/or a hidden ignition kill switch. Are these upgrades potentially costly and burdensome? Yes. But one might say the same about deadbolt locks, bars on windows, home security alarm systems and other steps residents have taken over the decades to make their homes more secure.


You know what’s also tiresome? Listening to individuals on right-wing media use these circumstances to once again paint Baltimore as an apocalyptic hellscape, ignoring how incidents of carjacking in Baltimore (where motorists sometimes get guns pointed at them) are actually in significant decline this year. That’s right: The numbers are improving, just like those for homicides, but you won’t hear much about that from the haters. The best counterpunch? Historically, it’s come from the mayor’s office, where they actively call out attention to such trends, point fingers at those involved and reassure the populace that they are active on the matter. Mayor Brandon Scott did this when he announced four months ago that Baltimore was joining a national lawsuit against Hyundai and Kia, but his visibility on this issue shouldn’t end with calling out the car manufacturer’s responsibility.

An election year approaches, of course, so we expect there will be no shortage of council members holding dog and pony shows in the months ahead on any number of topics. But we would remind the incumbent mayor that while reducing gun violence is surely Job No. 1 (with improving job opportunities and housing, addressing equity issues and reversing population loss likely job. 2, 3, 4 and 5), he needs to demonstrate he’s busy on the property crime front, too. Successful politicians know repeating oneself is not a crime, but seeming to fail to lead on crime is serious political malpractice.

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