Anti-terrorist techniques used against car thieves

The Seattle Police Department recently announced it will use European technology first developed for the war on terrorism to nab car thieves. But the effort to combat an epidemic of auto theft in the state also includes a low-tech approach: a discounted price for The Club.

The high-tech system uses cameras to automatically scan license-plate numbers and compares them to a hot sheet listing stolen cars, said SPD spokesman Rich Pruitt.

"Our region is a good market for them, obviously," said Pruitt, adding that the Civica Company in the United Kingdom developed the plate-scanning software for anti-terrorism purposes.

Indeed, approximately 9,000 vehicles a year are stolen in Seattle, according to SPD records.

A squad car outfitted with the Civica system for the press conference announcing the anti-theft measures had six cameras, including ones that were infrared.

"We're probably going for three or four cameras per unit," Pruitt said. "We're trying for two (squad cars)."

The systems cost between $15,000 and $49,000, and the SPD is hoping to use a United States Justice Department grant to initially outfit one police car by the end of the year.

According to Pruitt, the list of stolen vehicles will be downloaded at the city's precincts on a 64mg Pen Drive, which will be plugged into the computers of the department's squad cars. A recent hot sheet for Seattle had 1,591 entries, while the state had around 13,000.

"We'd probably do the state list," Pruitt noted. "It would be just as easy."

According to the Civica Web site, the system can read license-plate numbers at speeds up to 100 mph, in multiple lanes of traffic, during the day or night, and in dry or wet weather.

The SPD also touts the fact that the Civica system can read up to 1,000 plates per hour, greatly exceeding the roughly 100 plates a patrol officer can check by hand.

Currently, officers run plates when they stop someone. However, they also run plates at other times based on details most people wouldn't notice, according to John Urkuhart, a spokesman for King County Sheriffs Department. Urkuhart's department is also considering a license-plate-scanning system for use in the future.

"A good street cop can tell (a car's stolen) from the body language of the driver," Urkuhart said, adding that another clue is if the vehicle is any kind of Honda.

Club your car

Pruitt pointed out that it already uses the Low Jack system to track stolen vehicles. But prevention is part of the effort, too, and the SPD plans to buy a Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) etching machine so that motorists can put the numbers on vehicle windows. Doing that makes vehicles less attractive to would-be thieves, according to a police press release.

Prevention efforts also include the use of The Club. Using an $8,500 grant from Safeco Insurance, the Seattle Neighborhood Group announced at the same press conference that it is offering to sell the anti-theft device at a discounted price of $20.

The Club attaches to the steering wheel to prevent the vehicle from being driven away. The community group will sell Clubs for standard cars at $20 with the slightly larger ones used on SUVs going for $25, according to a coupon that can be downloaded from the crime-prevention group's Web site ( Those without Internet access can also order The Club at a discount by calling 323-9666.

However, The Club is not foolproof, Pruitt noted. But if a thief is faced with a choice of stealing a vehicle with The Club in place and one that doesn't have one, the thief will target the vehicle without one.

"You know, I have one on my car," said Pruitt, who added that he insists that his 17-year-old son always use The Club on his vehicle.

Baiting the hook

Also in the planning stages at the SPD is the use of so-called bait cars to catch auto thieves, according to spokesman Sean Whitcomb. The vehicles include a GPS tracking system and a method to automatically cut the engine and lock the doors while the auto thief is still in the vehicle.

The bait cars would be financed with National Insurance Crime Bureau and Seattle Police Foundation money, Pruitt said. That program will take awhile to implement, though. "We're not ready to roll it out," Whitcomb said. "We still need to do more research."

The SPD effort comes on the heels of a Car Theft Initiative recently announced by the King County prosecutor's office. The initiative calls for, among other steps, targeting repeat offenders and rush-filing charges against vehicle thieves before they get out of jail or juvenile detention, said Prosecutor's Office spokesman Dan Donohoe.

"That's great news from our perspective," Donohoe said of the ramped-up police efforts. "It's part of a concerted effort to really get a handle on car theft."

Staff reporter Russ Zabel may be reached via[[In-content Ad]]