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Grand Theft Cop Car

Police vehicles are more vulnerable to thieves than you might think.

October 01, 2003  |  by Mark Kariya

Walking away from a car with the keys in the ignition is standard operating procedure for some law enforcement agencies.

Complacency can kill. Whether it's something as mundane as not wearing your seat belt while driving or not wearing body armor during a high-risk entry, failure to take preventive measures can have disastrous results.

The same is true when it comes to securing a law-enforcement vehicle. Although news reports are not full of stories of police patrol vehicles being stolen every day, it happens more often than you might imagine-and the results have deadly potential. In the first four months of this year, more than 30 police departments nationwide experienced a theft of one of their vehicles. Many of these cases simply ended with the car damaged.

However, it's not difficult to imagine a stolen unit being driven by a fleeing felon running down civilians. And if that happens, the affected department is practically guaranteed to be named in a lawsuit. Worse, because a police car grants the driver almost instant access to high-security areas, terrorists would love to get their hands on one.

Their visibility-and the implication that they represent law enforcement-makes police vehicles attractive targets to some criminals. An unmarked SWAT unit might, for example, contain an abundance of weapons and tactical gear that would be a huge score on the streets. Others might simply see the police unit as the nearest means of escape or even a joy ride.

Unfortunately, once the thief is in a speeding police car, the odds shift in his or her favor, making it hard for the good guys to recover the vehicle. "The bad guy has the tactical advantage," says Mark Tremblay, vice president of Tremco Police Products. "While he's in the car, he can monitor the [police] radio or scanner and know if you're setting up a roadblock somewhere, then he can avoid it pretty easily."

Who Steals Police Cars

According to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, there's a car stolen somewhere in the United States once every 27 seconds. Granted, this statistic is for civilian vehicles, but the alarming fact is that law enforcement vehicles are also vulnerable to theft. Such theft is similar in one way to the theft of civilian vehicles in that it's inconvenient, at the very least. But for cops there's an added extra pain to car theft: It's embarrassing for the affected department as well as the individual officer.

So what can an officer or department do to make sure their vehicles remain in their control and egg stays off of their faces?

As with civilian vehicle theft prevention, there are a number of steps that can be taken to prevent unauthorized personnel from driving off in a black-and-white. Many departments feel that locking vehicles and not having "take-home" cars cuts the possibility of theft. True, it does, but there are more than a few instances of locked vehicles being broken into and stolen.

In Maryland, two departments lost one patrol car each on the same day in March. In both cases, the officers were off duty, and the vehicles were locked. Both were recovered within hours. One, an unmarked car, had been hot-wired after the thief pried the passenger door open to gain access.

However, most reports of stolen police vehicles involve suspects who manage to get into a unit that the officer has left unattended, either to take a report or chase someone.

Recently, an Ohio woman was arrested, handcuffed, and placed in the back seat of a patrol car; all four doors were locked. Nonetheless, while the arresting officer and others gathered evidence, she managed to slip her hands from behind her back, underneath her feet, and in front of her. She then crawled through the dividing window and proceeded to drive off. Officers caught her when she crashed the car a short distance later.

A month earlier in Texas, a man walked up to a sheriff's deputy who was sitting in his patrol car and asked for a ride. When the deputy rolled down his window to respond, the suspect managed to enter the vehicle, scuffle with the deputy, and drag him out. The suspect then drove away in the patrol car, though authorities caught him shortly afterward.

Invitations to Crime

The moral of the story is that official cars are indeed theft targets. And they're not only targets; they're soft targets.

One of the reasons it's so easy to steal a police car is that many officers need to keep their units running almost non-stop through a shift, whether they are in the cars or not. This may sound stupid to civilians. But turning the engine off means that the car's battery will drain quickly because of the power demands created by emergency lights and communications systems.

All of the equipment—lights, radios, computers—in modern police cars requires officers to keep the engines running at traffic stops to prevent battery drain.

Also, depending on local weather, it can be a necessity to keep the air-conditioner or heater running. And with the proliferation of communication systems, laptops, and other computers in patrol vehicles, turning off the engine often means you've got to power down those instruments, then go through the sometimes inconvenient rebooting procedure-and that's not to mention the need to keep them within a fairly narrow temperature range.

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