Updated: Dec 26, 2020
Since the beginning of the year, rates of reported car thefts in New York City have climbed by 60 percent—the biggest increase of any of the seven major felonies tracked by the NYPD, according to their weekly numbers. Though precincts across the city have seen increases, the hotspots for theft in the city are concentrated in Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Queens.
In Brooklyn, the 75th Precinct covering East New York and Broadway Junction leads the city in car thefts this year, at 200 and counting, according to NYPD data. Other areas, like the 70th Precinct covering Flatbush and Ditmas Park, have seen previously low numbers spike significantly higher. Citizens reported 77 car thefts there so far this year, up from just 14 this time last year, an increase of about 450 percent.
Nationally, rates of automobile theft have been falling for the last couple of years, according to a report on 2019 statistics released by the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB).
NICB spokesperson Tully Lehman cautions against making sweeping pronouncements about the reasons for this year’s increase in New York. The data, he says, is just too new. “To get a good handle on what’s going on in 2020, you have to see what’s happening throughout the entire year instead of just taking one part of the year and saying ‘It’s because of X’,” says Lehman. “It could be economy, it could be weather, it could be a lot of different things. But you just don’t have any sort of way available to nail it down to a specific factor.”
Other major American cities aren’t necessarily seeing increases in car theft on par with New York’s. While Philadelphia and Los Angeles have seen comparatively modest increases of around 30 percent, Chicago has seen no significant increase in stolen automobiles, according to publicly available data. Newark, historically a hot spot for car theft, has seen just a 3 percent increase. And in Houston, auto theft crime has gone down slightly from this time last year.
No clear answer, yet
Christopher Herrmann, crime analyst and assistant professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, says that the numbers are striking—but echoed that it’s too soon to say for sure what’s driving the uptick. “Auto theft since the beginning of the year has just kind of gone up and up and up. It’s really kind of crazy,” says Herrmann. “It’s one of the ones we can’t really explain.”
He cautions that in New York, where crime rates have dropped dramatically since the mid-nineties, big percentage increases can be misleading. “New York has really pushed the auto theft level down so low that any kind of small uptick is going to give you that significant number,” Herrmann says. In Manhattan, where the rates of grand larceny auto have remained low, large percentage jumps don’t necessarily reflect huge numbers – but car theft numbers have gone up in most precincts compared to last year.
Citywide, year to date auto thefts are still 27 percent lower than they were over the same period of time 10 years ago, when New York was already bragging that it was America’s safest large city.
While he emphasizes that it’s too soon to prove any of them definitively, Herrmann does have theories. “Higher unemployment rates mean more theft. We saw that with burglary as well,” Herrmann says. “COVID hit and burglary started to go up.” He added that burglary and auto theft often move in sync. “The two kind of used to go hand in hand,” he says. “It usually signifies people that are hard up for money and willing to steal stuff and then obviously try to turn it into cash.”
Unemployment in the city has soared to over 20 percent as private sector jobs have fallen by hundreds of thousands in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Herrmann says a case could be made that this economic disruption is at least partially fueling the surge. “It’s all tied into that same story – people lose their jobs, they need money, they start stealing stuff, whatever it is,” he says.
However, car theft numbers began climbing even before the pandemic struck.
Herrmann also mentioned recent reforms to the city’s bail system, as well as early releases due to the danger of COVID-19 in prisons, as possible factors. “Those car thieves that would have been doing time in prison, that would be a pretty easy one to kick early,” says Herrmann. “It’s a property crime, so in theory there is less of a threat to the community.” Recent reporting by the New York Post found no evidence that bail reforms and early releases due to COVID caused any upticks in crime. The Post studied shooting incidents so far this year and found that very few people released due to the reforms or the pandemic were involved in any violence.
Life in the hot spots
Kenichi Wilson, chair of Community Board Nine in Queens in the NYPD’s 102nd Precinct, says his area’s big percentage jump in auto theft numbers may look more significant than it is because those numbers had previously been so low. With 28 thefts this time last year, the precinct was one of the bottom five precincts in Queens for rates of auto theft. This year, 84 thefts were reported there as of July 26th – a 200 percent jump. Wilson added that such thefts might be crimes of opportunity. “The majority of car thefts in Queens are due to the cars being left running, to tell you the truth,” he says. He also noted that his district borders Brooklyn’s 75th Precinct, which leads the city in purloined autos so far this year.
Alfredo Figueroa, chair of the Public Safety Committee of Community Board 12 in the Bronx, says he hears much more about car break-ins than theft of entire cars. “Every time we have a community board meeting or precinct council meeting, that’s what people come and complain about,” says Figueroa. His district falls under the 47th Precinct, which has the highest rates of auto theft in the borough so far this year.
The NYPD defines grand larceny auto as the theft of a whole vehicle. Thefts of parts of vehicles, or thefts of objects inside vehicles, are classified as petit larceny or grand larceny, according to an NYPD spokesperson. Property crimes like auto theft and burglary have gone up this year, but grand larceny (excluding auto theft) went down by over 20 percent, according to NYPD data.
Matt Moore, vice president of the Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI), an organization that studies vehicle-related insurance loss, says that auto theft claims nationwide have been decreasing since the early eighties. He says that anti-theft devices and the rise of electronic commerce around vehicle sales, combined with the imposition of VIN numbers on cars, made it much harder to steal and sell an automobile.
“Long term, looking back in the mid 1980s, if we’re talking about relatively new cars, theft claim frequencies were in excess of ten claims for every thousand vehicles insured, whereas in more recent years, say 2018, we’re just over one theft claim for every thousand insured vehicles,” says Moore. “So we’re talking about big drops here.”
He says that the cars thieves tend to go for are “pricey or powerful, and the worst are both pricey and powerful.” He says the Infiniti QX60 was one of the most stolen cars in his most recent data from last year, followed by the Dodge Charger.
“Grand theft auto is a serious crime,” Moore says. “So I don’t know that there’s much sense in stealing a car that’s not profitable.”