High tech, low tech combine to foil car thieves

The Seattle Police Department announced last week at a press conference that it will be using 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.

The initial software was developed by the Civica company in the United Kingdom for anti-terrorism purposes, he said. "Our region is a good market for them, obviously." Indeed, something like 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 had six cameras, including ones that were infrared, Pruitt said. "We're probably going for three or four cameras per unit," he said.

The systems cost between $15,000 and $49,000, and the SPD is hoping to use a Justice Department grant to initially outfit one police car by the end of the year, Pruitt said. "We're trying for two [squad cars]," he added.

Speed reader

The list of stolen vehicles will be downloaded at the precincts on a 64mg Pen Drive that will be plugged into the computer in the squad car, Pruitt said. A recent hot sheet for Seattle had 1,591 entries, while the state had around 13,000, he said. "We'd probably do the state list; it would be just as easy."

According to the Civica Web site, the system can read license-plate numbers of vehicles traveling at speeds up to 100 m.p.h., 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, which compares with roughly 100 plates a patrol officer can check by hand.

Police always run plates when they stop someone, but running plates at other times is based on details most people wouldn't notice, according to John Urquhart, a spokesman for King County Sheriff's Department, which 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," Urquhart said of one example. Another clue is if the vehicle is any kind of Honda, he added.

The Seattle Police Department also 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.

But prevention efforts 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 people the anti-theft device at a discounted price.

The Club attaches to the steering wheel to prevent the vehicle from being driven away, and the Seattle Neighborhood Group is offering to sell the equipment for cars for $20.

Slightly larger ones for use on SUVs cost $25, according to a coupon that can be downloaded from the crime-prevention group's Web site (www.sng.org). Those without Inter-net access can also order The Club by calling 323-9666.

The Club is not foolproof, Pruitt notes. 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, he noted. "You know, I have one on my car," said Pruitt, who added that he insists his 17-year-old son always use The Club on his vehicle.

Getting a handle on it

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, he explained.

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 Prosecu-tor'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," he 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 can be reached at rzabel@nwlink.com or 461-1309.

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