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UPDATED: Stolen cars drive tensions between cities and towns

Old Lyme — A Point O' Woods homeowner says the roughly 70 year-round residents in the cloistered beach community are "sitting ducks" for what he described as a scourge of juvenile car thefts emanating from cities and exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.

The issue is a hot-button one that has pit smaller towns against the state's population centers as the number of car thefts decrease in cities but soar in the suburbs.

Overall, data from the nonpartisan, university-based Institute for Municipal and Regional Policy shows car thefts are down almost 80% from their peak three decades ago.

But Point O' Woods resident Robert Sirkin said a recent spate of crimes has left some in the mostly elderly community afraid. The one that hit closest to home was an incident in June, during which two cars were stolen from the community, along with a gun and cash.

"Several of us fear a home invasion," he said. "That's the worst."

Old Lyme Resident State Trooper Matt Weber confirmed the June 16 theft of a Subaru Outback and a Volkswagen Passat, which occurred in the early morning during the 3 o'clock hour. He said one of the vehicles was recovered in West Haven the next day but the handgun was not. The department has not made any arrests in the case.

The rates of motor vehicle thefts have increased 20% nationally and by 40% statewide from 2019 to 2020, according to a preliminary report released this year by Ken Barone and his team at the public policy institute.

Barone's data shows juveniles accounted for 36% of motor vehicle theft arrests last year. He presented his findings to the state legislature's Juvenile Justice Policy and Oversight Committee earlier this year.

The issue has become contentious at the state Capitol. Republicans say it's a fundamental flaw of the state's justice system that juveniles can repeatedly steal vehicles without much consequence, while Democrats say the answer to the problem is in more robust social services so youth don't resort to crime.

While thefts statewide were down 10% from 2010 to 2019, Barone's report cited a significant increase across the state's smaller municipalities. In towns with less than 25,000 residents, police reported a total of 536 auto thefts in 2010 compared to 671 in 2019 — an increase of 25%.

But preliminary data for 2020 shows a much large increase of 150% compared to 2011 in towns with less than 25,000 residents and 92% in towns with between 25,000 and 50,000 people.

In July, a 16-year-old from New Haven was charged with car theft in East Lyme after allegedly fleeing from police and crashing into a rock. In September, state police were searching for a suspect who allegedly fled after crashing and rolling over a stolen vehicle on Route 156 in Old Lyme. The next month, a 15-year-old from New Haven was arrested in Niantic after the boy was allegedly caught with a credit card that was stolen — along with a vehicle — from Old Lyme two nights before.

The National Insurance Crime Bureau said COVID-19, with the resulting economic downturn and loss of juvenile outreach programs, as well as public safety budgetary limitations, are likely contributing factors in the increase in car thefts.

Weber told The Day most thefts and break-ins happen between 2 and 5 a.m. as groups of two or more people go through the neighborhoods checking for unlocked vehicles. "When they find a vehicle with keys in it, they steal it," he said, adding that a majority of recovered vehicles "turn up in cities like New Haven and Waterbury."

Data from the Old Lyme Police Department showed two vehicles stolen in 2019, seven in 2020 and nine so far this year. Over the same three-year span, vehicles were broken into seven, eight and 23 times, respectively. The department did not provide the number of arrests, if any.

"When they are located and arrested, it just seems they're not treated as harshly as an adult would be," Weber said.

Police perspective

East Lyme police Chief Mike Finkelstein said numbers started rising before the pandemic in that beach town, which has a population of just under 19,000. Four thefts in 2018 jumped to 16 in 2019, to 18 in 2020 and 14 so far this year.

Officers made 12 arrests in those cases: five adults and seven juveniles. Almost half of those arrests came from a single case this September. That's when police said an attempted vehicle break-in resulted in the minor injury of one town officer when his cruiser was struck by a stolen vehicle with five boys inside.

Finkelstein emphasized it's difficult to determine how many auto thefts are carried out by juveniles because so few arrests are made. "The vast majority are just found abandoned," he said of the stolen vehicles.

Judicial Branch data shows 38% of juvenile car theft arrests during the first half of this year came from the state's four largest cities.

Finkelstein said it's hard for his department "to be part of the solution" when the kids committing the crimes are from all over the state. "We are on the end here of trying to prevent and curtail it, but we don't have the ability to intercede in what's making it happen."

According to the Pew Research Center, auto theft is the most likely crime to be reported and the least likely to be solved.

Juvenile arrests for auto theft rose from 629 in 2018 to 889 in 2020, but were trending lower as of mid-2021, according to Judicial Branch data. But the 341 arrests in the first half of this year were on par with the same period in 2019.

Finkelstein attributed the lack of arrests in part to state law enforcement policies and laws that can prevent officers from closing cases. "It becomes very difficult because the youth that are involved seemingly have no problem with getting into very high-speed chases," he said. "Abiding by the statewide pursuit policy, we're not able to pursue those vehicles."

The most recent pursuit policy from the state Police Officer Standards and Training Council specifies that someone fleeing in a stolen vehicle isn't sufficient justification to engage in a pursuit unless it's accompanied by a violent crime or risk to the public that can be clearly stated to superiors by the officer.

Finkelstein said "it really creates a dangerous situation when you have inexperienced drivers fleeing" at very high speeds. And it's not uncommon for stolen cars to be used in other criminal activity, including robberies, burglaries and shootings, he said.

He pointed to a drive-by shooting last year in Waterbury involving a vehicle reported stolen from Groton. The Associated Press reported that the shooting, which killed a 26-year-old man and injured a 23-year-old woman, was followed hours later by a chase that ended with a head-on collision between the stolen suspect vehicle and a police cruiser. The five people arrested ranged in age from 17 to 39, including the 18-year-old alleged shooter.

"Ultimately what we have found in many cases is when we do arrest juveniles, unfortunately, most of them have a history — have been on probation before, have been arrested before for the same crimes," Finkelstein said.

Of the 341 juveniles arrested on auto theft charges in the first half of this year, court data show 113 had four or more prior arrests for the same charge. That's roughly equivalent to the number of first-time offenders in the group. The remaining 97 had two or three prior arrests.

Calls for reform

Republicans this summer called for legislators to return to the Capitol for a special session that never materialized. They put forth a plan for reforms like GPS monitoring of juveniles arrested while awaiting trial on other charges and implementing victim panels as well as juvenile delinquency hearings. Other provisions in the proposal include making fingerprinting mandatory for juveniles arrested on felony or Class A misdemeanor charges.

Another proposal would give police more access to juvenile records.

State Rep. Greg Howard, R-Stonington, said this summer that it's important for officers to have access 24/7 to pending juvenile cases.

"The statute allows the juvenile court to share that information with law enforcement, but the juvenile court's only open during the day. The fact is, a kid that's stealing his seventh car creates a greater risk to society than a kid who stole one, and an officer has to have that information available," he said.

According to Finkelstein, law enforcement's current level of access to a juvenile's history in the court system is an improvement over what it used to be, but the information is typically slow to arrive.

"The difficulty is you have a very short window — six hours — where you can hold a juvenile," he said. He added that's not a lot of time for the few East Lyme officers who are on duty at any given time to get the kids into custody and processed while making calls for their court history and to alert their families.

Though a Republican-backed bill focusing on juvenile car thefts failed this year, parts of it found their way into two other bills, both ultimately signed into law by the governor. Senate Bill 1093 makes it a crime to entice a minor into committing a crime, as legislators heard that some adults were recruiting minors to steal cars for them. The bill also requires the state Judicial Branch to study ways to decrease time between a youth's arrest and court appearance.

Meanwhile, proponents of a more holistic approach to reducing auto thefts argue that law enforcement is only one part of the solution. They praise previous reforms going back to the early 2000s that eliminated prison overcrowding while keeping the public safe.

They emphasize data in Barone's report that show an overall 77% reduction in vehicle thefts statewide since numbers peaked in 1991.

Dr. Jeffrey Butts, director of John Jay College's Research and Evaluation Center in New York, said the crime should be viewed through a youth services lens focused on all children. Instead, he said, it's viewed as a criminal justice issue involving older teens who get into trouble.

"We ruin their lives by seeing them as future criminals," he said.

Butts spoke at a panel discussion this week hosted by the University of Connecticut Department of Public Policy. It was the third in a series on youth car thefts designed to dispel misconceptions and come up with possible solutions.

"The real focus should be on doing positive things and proactive things with 12- to 13- to 14-year-olds," Butts said. "We don't do that. We wait until there's a problem and then come down on them as if they're criminals. And there will certainly be a small number of them that are bound to be lifelong criminals, but a very small number."

Brittany Lamarr, a justice advisor with the Connecticut Justice Alliance, went through the court system as a young adult and has become an advocate for ending the criminalization of youth. She reiterated that preventive practices are needed before someone becomes involved in the system.

"I think first it's important to note that if we're talking about young people who have already been arrested and are facing criminal charges, we've gone too far," she said. "There are so many collateral consequences to arresting a young person that only increase the number of barriers that exist for any path to rehabilitation."

Hartford resident Betzaida Soto, who has had two cars stolen, said she believes youth who steal cars should be held accountable but incarceration isn't the solution. "You cannot do a crime and just walk away with no consequences," she said.

She called for life skills training, employment services and education to help young people better themselves. Otherwise, "You're going to have adults later on in life that are not going to be able to find jobs, that are not going to be able to find appropriate housing and it's just going to be a bigger expense to taxpayers and everyone," she said.

Lock your cars

In Old Lyme, Sirkin said he has implored the Point O' Woods Beach Association board of governors to do something for the residents who live in the community year-round instead of waiting for the seasonal influx.

"Don't leave us until next spring, when who knows what could happen," he said.

In data collected over three years, the National Insurance Crime Bureau found the number of cars stolen with keys that are left inside rises when temperatures are low, with the biggest days for thefts occurring in November, December, January and February.

Sirkin is asking the beach association for some sort of upgraded professional security, from enhanced patrols to better lighting to a gate.

Weber, the resident state trooper who oversees the department's six full-time and two part-time officers, said he orders extra patrols when crime ramps up in the area and troopers from the Connecticut State Police barracks in Westbrook help with midnight patrols. But his main concern is spreading the word that people should remove valuables from their vehicles and lock the doors. He cautioned garage doors should also be secured.

"The last couple of years we've seen them going in garages to check the cars," he said of would-be thieves.

Randy McHugh, president of the beach community's board of governors, acknowledged Sirkin's concerns. He said the association is open to installing additional lighting to complement existing efforts, which include hiring "winter watch" personnel who do occasional night patrols.

But he reiterated there are things people can do to protect their cars from theft.

Describing the cars stolen from the beach community in June as "easy targets," he said the solution is common sense: people need to lock their car doors.

"It wasn't someone trying to hotwire the car," McHugh said. "It was easy for them to take, unfortunately."

Day Staff Writer Sten Spinella contributed to this report.

e.regan@theday.com

Editor's Note: This version corrects the percentage increase in car thefts in towns with less than 25,000 people from 2010-19 and clarifies that a 150% increase from 2011-20 is based on preliminary 2020 data.



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