After six years of steady declines, auto thefts shot up in California last year with several Bay Area cities, most notably San Jose, leading a sudden and puzzling resurgence.
For the first time since at least 2000, five Bay Area cities last year ranked among the top 10 nationally in auto thefts per capita, according to FBI data released this month. Richmond and Oakland placed first and second among cities with at least 100,000 residents. They were joined in the upper ranks by Vallejo, Antioch and Hayward. The highest-ranking California city outside the Bay Area was Bakersfield at No. 15.
None of those cities, however, registered as big an increase as San Jose, where residents endured a 71 percent jump in stolen vehicles from 5,121 in 2011 to 8,759 last year. The city ranks 16th nationally, and so far this year, it is dealing with an additional 37 percent increase.
Auto thefts climbed 11 percent statewide last year. Across the nation, the crime inched up 1.3 percent -- the first increase in a decade.
Scholars and police are mystified by the spike. While other property crimes -- robbery and burglary, in particular -- are also on the rise, it was thought that sophisticated anti-theft devices in newer cars would prevent auto thefts from bounding upward. The most frequently stolen cars in California are 1990s Hondas, which lack modern ignition security systems.
"For a big city like San Jose to have a jump like that is very surprising," said Steven Block, a professor who studies auto thefts at Central Connecticut State University. "The first thing that would come to mind is maybe one or two groups are doing this. You wouldn't think that all of a sudden you had a cultural shift toward joy riding."
The rise in auto thefts presents widespread consequences for car owners. Sustained increases can result in higher insurance premiums.
Also, because the most commonly stolen vehicles are older sedans and trucks, many victims have low-wage jobs and risk unemployment if they can't make it to work.
"Even though it doesn't seem like a big deal, the impact that losing a car has on a working person or a family is pretty big," said CHP Sgt. Paul Hurt, who heads the auto theft task force in Alameda County, where vehicle thefts jumped 17 percent last year.
Lisa Shafer, an Oakland teacher, had to pay $500 just to retrieve her 1998 Honda Civic from the city's impound lot after thieves stole and damaged it while she was out of town. "I kept thinking that if I was someone living paycheck to paycheck, I wouldn't even be able to get it out of the tow yard," she said.
Search for answers
There's no consensus explanation for last year's upswing in auto thefts in the Bay Area or California, where the crime had plummeted 67 percent from 2005 through 2011.
Several officers working on Bay Area countywide auto theft task forces don't think organized crime syndicates, with the capacity to ship cars and car parts from local ports, are driving the sudden increase. They note that the region has one of the highest rates for recovering stolen vehicles, at about 90 percent, and that most recovered vehicles haven't been stripped for parts.
The officers attributed last year's rise primarily to severe cuts in police staffing and the 2011 state law known as realignment that gives authorities incentives to limit jail time for nonviolent offenders. Those are the two factors that police across California have been blaming for increases in other property crimes.
"The types of crimes that folks are getting realigned back into the community for ... are the ones more likely to include stealing cars," said Mountain View police Lt. Jessica Nowaski, who heads the auto theft task force in Santa Clara County, where vehicle thefts surged 60 percent last year.
But Frank Scafidi, a former FBI agent who now works for the National Insurance Crime Bureau, which tracks auto thefts, said blaming realignment is an easy crutch for police. "That's a convenient answer to give people, but I don't think there's enough data yet to say realignment is a factor," he said.
Scafidi said it's too early to know why auto thefts are increasing, but that reduced police staffing could be a factor.
Major police departments, including Oakland's and San Jose's, have cut back staffing for the auto theft task forces even as they rely on them more than ever as their own ranks have thinned. The Santa Clara County task force has dwindled from 10 detectives to four over the past decade, Nowaski said.
No longer 'Wild West'
The "too few cops" theory falls short in Richmond, a city of about 103,000 residents where auto thefts rose 38 percent last year even though police staffing has gone up. But the city still had nearly 500 more vehicle thefts five years ago, when it placed second to Oakland nationally.
"It was the Wild West back then," said Officer Mark Hall, who specializes in catching car thieves.
Hall chalks up the recent spike in part to persistent economic languor, drug addicts desperate for fixes and several local "chop shops" willing to pay for hot cars.
"For a while we were seeing drug addicts stealing cars and selling catalytic converters (which contain precious metals) to recyclers," Hall said. "Now they have to jump through some hoops like showing IDs to sell those to recyclers, so they are looking for stereos, aftermarket wheels and tires, anything they can get quick cash for."
Hall said it became increasingly common last year for thieves to fraudulently sell stolen cars to gullible buyers.
Police say burglars and robbers frequently use stolen cars to commit crimes and then discard them. In Antioch, which ranked eighth in auto thefts, most car thieves are just joy riding or looking for a way to get from one place to another, Capt. Leonard Orman said.
California appears to be responsible for the national uptick in auto thefts. FBI data showed the crime continued to decline in every region of the country last year except the West, where it jumped 10 percent.
So far this year, auto thefts are down in Antioch and Richmond, where the city is following San Pablo's lead in deploying high-tech License Plate Reader cameras around the city. But vehicle thefts are up 16 percent in Oakland so far this year. And through April, they were up an additional 6 percent statewide.
Contact Matthew Artz at 510-208-6435.