Steal a car, get more attention

Come September, a new, eight-member regional police task force will open an office with the goal of reducing the number of car thefts throughout south King County.

Come September, a new, eight-member regional police task force will open an office with the goal of reducing the number of car thefts throughout south King County.

A state grant of $1 million will fund the task force for the first nine months, part of the new Washington Auto Theft Prevention Authority formed by the Legislature last year.

Police officials from 18 agencies in King and Pierce counties, including Covington and Maple Valley, attended a press conference Wednesday at Kent City Hall to announce the new task force that will include a supervisor, six officers and a crime analyst. Its office will be in Kent.

“Washington has been ranked in the top five or six (for most stolen cars) in the nation for the last several years,” said Jim LaMunyon, executive director of the Washington Auto Theft Prevention Authority. “With funds for the multi-agency task forces, we hope to see the agencies bring the rate of stolen vehicles down. We want to fall out of the top-five position.”

King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg said the task force will work closely with prosecutors to go after car thieves.

“This is a banner day in our fight against auto theft,” Satterberg said. “The county dropped (over the last three years) from the sixth hot spot in the nation to 16th, but we still have a lot of work to be done. We will not rest until we drop out of the top 25 in the nation.”

According to the Washington Uniform Crime Report, there were 11,269 vehicles stolen in 2007 in King County.

A law passed last year by the Legislature to stiffen the penalties for repeat car thieves will help the task force and prosecutors get more criminals off the streets, Satterberg said.

Under the old law, it took seven convictions for auto theft before an offender would go to prison for one year. Now, offenders will go to prison after three convictions and serve from 17 months to 22 months. A fourth conviction would lead to a sentence of four to five years.

Satterberg and Kent Police chief Steve Strachan are members of the new auto theft prevention board. The board has a two-year projected budget of $12 million, funded by a $10 fee added to all traffic infractions. Those fees provided the $1 million for the south King County task force.

The task force also will have a vehicle equipped with an automated license-plate reader, similar to the one the Kent Police started to use earlier this year in the department’s effort to crack down on car thefts. Three roof-mounted patrol car cameras can shoot as many as 10 photos per second of vehicle-license plates. Those cameras connect to a state computer database of stolen cars and notify the officer immediately of a stolen vehicle.

“I think September will be the starting date of when people start to work on this,” said Strachan, who added the city will donate office space at the West Hill fire station to serve as a central post for the region that stretches from Burien and Renton south to Sumner. “We’ll be the headquarters for a task force going after prolithic auto thieves in the region. I think that’s a terrific benefit.”

The task force will focus solely on car thieves, but many thieves use the cars to commit other crimes, such as burglaries.

Police officials said a small percentage of people steal most of the vehicles.

“We’ve been reactive” after cars are stolen, Strachan said. “Now we’ll figure out who the thieves are and work people, not cases.”