That’s the script a growing number of Houston car thieves are unwittingly following as they’re snared by a fleet of “bait cars” left around the city in known hot spots for auto theft. The cars are wired for video and sound, and police record the thieves’ every move — and incriminating word — from the time they steal the car until the engine is turned off by a remote kill switch. Patrol units then box the car in and pounce for the arrest.
Later this year, the Houston Police Department’s auto theft detail expects to boost its fleet of bait cars to 14 vehicles, one of the largest in the nation. The reason behind the expansion is simple: Police say they have logged a 100 percent conviction rate with thieves caught driving off in bait cars.
“With the video, you can’t win. A defense attorney sees the video, and they advise them to plead guilty,” said Sgt. Joe Smith, who is in charge of the three-officer detail.
So far this year, 20 suspected car thieves have been arrested after trying to steal bait cars, according to Smith. In 2008, bait car thefts led to the arrests of 52 people and resulted in 52 convictions, up from 42 the previous year, Smith said.
“I’ve never gone to a jury trial on a bait car case because the evidence obtained by police officers is often so compelling as to clearly establish a defendant’s guilt,” Harris County Assistant District Attorney Donna Hawkins said.
Professor Larry Hoover, who directs the Police Research Center at Sam Houston State University, said the bait car has been an effective tool for more than a decade.
“The important point to note is they’ve become much safer,” Hoover said. “They’re now equipped with shutdown devices that preclude the danger of the theft of a bait car resulting in a high-speed chase.”
Bait cars, he said, are intended to both take habitual car thieves off the streets, and serve as a deterrent.
“A thief would have to contemplate, is this auto easy to steal, or is it, in fact, a police bait car?” he said. “What we don’t know ... is what proportion are chronic thieves versus the proportion that are 15-year-olds who would not likely take a car.”
Smith said a preliminary analysis of 31 bait car cases made since January 2008 indicated that most of those arrested had extensive criminal records.
“The guys we’re dealing with are not first offenders,” he said. “They are usually stealing it to commit another crime, to go sell dope, or buy dope, or do an armed robbery.”
Even though auto theft in Houston fell 22 percent last year, compared with 2007, the city has a persistent problem with the theft of heavy-duty four-wheel-drive trucks. The expensive trucks are sought out by drug and human trafficking rings who drive them to the border and return with a load of contraband, often before they are reported stolen.
“Trucks themselves are popular, and there are a lot here in Houston. If they’re not stealing it to transport contraband, they’re stealing it for parts,” Smith said. “Trucks continue to be the most popular theft targets.”
In March, 60 percent of the top 10 vehicles stolen in Houston — 468 of 785 — were trucks, according to HPD.
Mounting losses in Houston prompted Allstate Insurance Co. this month to donate to the bait car detail a Dodge truck, along with equipment to transmit streaming video and real-time audio, a package worth $40,000. Allstate, the second-largest auto insurer in Harris County with 132,000 policy holders, experienced a 6 percent increase in customer cars stolen in Houston in 2007, compared with 2006, spokeswoman Kristen Beaman said.
“With this live-feed capability, it not only helps the police identify the thieves, it helps them see if they’re carrying weapons and potentially save lives,” Beaman said.
The Houston Police Foundation gave the bait car project an initial grant of $80,000, and State Farm, Allstate, Kemper, Nationwide and Farmers insurance companies have donated vehicles and equipment to the operation, Smith said.
And while the bait cars are just one of the high-technology tools used to fight auto theft, experts say not to forget the basics.
“We’re trying to get out the word that we not only want to get potential criminals off the street, but what are simple common-sense things you an do to prevent auto theft,” Beaman said. “The most important thing is locking the door, rolling up the windows and taking the keys with you.”