Removing Opportunity Can Curb Car Thefts

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MTT News's picture
Michelle Phillips

DANE COUNTY–Over the past two and a half years, the Madison metro area, including Middleton, has been plagued with both thefts of vehicles and thefts from vehicles carried out by a group of young teens. Despite efforts by law enforcement in the area, the crimes have continued leading to frustration of both law enforcement and citizens. Law enforcement officials say that these crimes can be prevented for the most part, by removing opportunity.

“Opportunity plays a significant role in the vehicles stolen and vehicles targeted for theft from vehicle, namely the vehicles being stolen are either left running with keys in the ignition and unlocked or turned off and left with keys in the ignition and unlocked which have served as an invitation to those interested in stealing the vehicles,” said Dane County Sheriff David Mahoney. “In regards to theft from vehicles, we are continuing to see vehicles containing valuables left unlocked creating again an invitation/challenge to those who wish a quick crime of opportunity.”

Middleton Police Chief Chuck Foulke agrees,” Opportunity is the key. These are not sophisticated crimes. They find cars that are running, left unlocked with keys in them or unlocked cars with garage door openers, they then open the garage door, enter the house and steal car keys or fobs. This is not victim blaming. It is empowering potential victims to prevent being the victim of a crime.”

One of the things that concerns Mahoney is the age of the thieves. Most are early teens, and, as he points out, have no driving experience, let alone a license. “In many of the other cases the individuals behind the wheel of the stolen car are simply inexperienced drivers even if they have a license,” he said. 

“They have been involved in crashes, injuring themselves, passengers and other innocent drivers,” added Foulke.

Several accidents have occurred when those drivers are confronted by law enforcement and a high-speed chase has ensued. Some have caused injury to the occupants of the speeding car, but the fear that a bystander will be injured is of concern for both Foulke and Mahoney.

“There have been a number of cases where cars have been stolen with guns in them. I am also concerned that an officer may be faced with a deadly force situation when confronting suspects in a stolen car with a gun in it,” included Foulke. 

A third potential hazardous scenario is the juveniles entering homes while the owners are present. “While a homeowner may be legally privileged to use deadly force to protect themselves, it would be a life altering event for all involved,” Foulke said.

Both men agree that processing those who are caught into the juvenile system has had little impact on stopping the crimes. 

“We cannot arrest our way out of this. Juvenile laws, sanctions and treatment options are not working. Law enforcement has also been working with schools, faith-based organizations, social services, mentors, job coaches, etc. to intervene with the youth and their families. I don’t think any of us are satisfied with the results,” said Foulke.

Mahoney added that the system is not set up to punish the kids and the state of Wisconsin has only two juvenile prisons, which it is hoping to close. “Unless the mindset changes to deliver punishment (incarceration) to these kids, and don’t mistake my desire to not do that since that will result in longer term issues in the long run, nothing much will change,” he stated. 

The lawmen agree that citizens can do their part in reducing the crimes. When parking your car, turn it off, take the keys and lock the vehicle. Don’t leave valuables or keys in the car, even if it is parked in the garage, and always secure firearms. Do not guns them unattended in your car.

Mahoney concluded, “If you wish to reduce crimes of opportunity, remove the opportunity.”


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