Regional task force to put the brakes on car theft

Police agencies throughout South King County expect to be catching a lot more car thieves soon.

Kent Police Department had a press conference July 30 to announce formation of a regional car-theft task force. Kent Police Lt. Bob Holt

Kent Police Department had a press conference July 30 to announce formation of a regional car-theft task force. Kent Police Lt. Bob Holt

Office will be based out of Kent facility

Police agencies throughout South King County expect to be catching a lot more car thieves soon.

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

A state grant of $1.030 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 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. The task-force office will be inside Kent Fire Station No. 73, at 26512 Military Road S.

“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, at the press conference. “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.”

Auburn, Covington, Des Moines, Kent, Renton and Tukwila are among the cities to be represented by the task force.

“Auto thieves don’t know jurisdictional boundaries,” said Auburn Police Chief Jim Kelly at the press conference. “Now we will be better able to catch them. And when an auto thief is in prison, he’s not victimizing the community.”

King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg also attended the press conference. The new task force that will work closely with prosecutors to go after car thieves, he noted.

“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.”

In 2007, Kent had 1,008 reported auto thefts, Renton 676, Auburn 673 and Tukwila 634, 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. Under the new law, offenders will go to prison after three convictions and serve from 17 to 22 months. A fourth conviction would lead to a sentence of four to five years.

Satterberg and Kent Police Chief Steve Strachan are both members of the new Auto Theft Prevention Authority board, formed by the Legislature last year. 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 database of stolen cars in the patrol’s car laptop computer and notify the officer immediately of a stolen vehicle.

The formation of the eight-member task force is still being determined. Kelly said Auburn plans to devote one officer to the task force. Kent Lt. Bob Holt will oversee the task force.

“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 car thieves use the stolen cars to commit other crimes, such as burglaries. Police officials also said a small percentage of people steal most of the vehicles.

“We’re going from a fragmented approach to a comprehensive approach,” Strachan said. “We’ve been reactive (after cars are stolen). Now we’ll figure out who the thieves are and work people, not cases.”

To catch a car thief

Participating police agencies in the new regional task force:

Auburn, Beaux Arts Village, Bonney Lake, Burien, Covington, Des Moines, Federal Way, Kent, Maple Valley, Muckleshoot Tribal, Pacific, Port of Seattle, Renton, SeaTac, Sumner, Tukwila, King County.

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