WTF: What explains the recent wave of vehicle thefts in Burlington? | WTF | Seven days
When Janet read on Facebook in December that thieves were searching cars in Burlington’s Old North End for items to steal, she took a neighbor’s advice: keep car doors unlocked so thieves don’t break the windows.
On Boxing Day, Janet (who declined to give her last name) went out to find someone had stolen her black 2014 Mazda3 just outside her Spring Street driveway.
Such incidents have become increasingly common in the queen city, where vehicle thefts increased last year. Between January 1, 2021 and January 15, 2022, the Burlington Police Department received 168 reports of stolen vehicles. During the same period a year earlier, 77 vehicles had gone missing; in 2019, only 55.
According to Interim Burlington Police Chief Jon Murad, a small percentage of vehicles reported stolen were actually towed or parked elsewhere. Nonetheless, Murad called the recent increase in auto theft “significant”. Whether these crimes are the product of teenagers bored by the pandemic, people in financial difficulty or a I’m going in 60 seconds– as a criminal network, he could not say.
“What motivates him? I don’t know for sure,” Murad said.
Back when the Sears Lane homeless encampment was still occupied, he noted, it was “a go-to place” for local law enforcement to track down stolen vehicles. Although the encampment, which the city closed in December, did not function as a “hash shop” like those found in major cities, he added, “there was certainly dismantling of vehicles there”.
A likely motivating factor, he suggested, is substance abuse, a finding Chittenden County state attorney Sarah George agreed with.
“The [vehicle thefts] that I personally sued were fueled by substance use,” George wrote in an email. “People [are] looking for an easy sell property for drugs.”
And as drug use in Burlington has increased in 2021, so have property crimes of all kinds, including burglaries, Murad said.
“What we’re seeing from 2020 to 2021 is a uniform increase (in property crime) across the city, just when we don’t have the police resources to patrol,” Murad added. Currently, BPD has 65 agents on its rosters, up from 96 a year ago. (In June 2020, progressive city councilors lobbied to reduce BPD ranks through attrition; many officers changed departments or resigned earlier than expected.)
But Burlington is not the only municipality to experience more auto thefts. In 2020, the Vermont State Police received 122 reports of stolen vehicles. Last year, they received 182, an increase of 49%.
The rise was even worse in Rutland. According to Nathan Thibodeau, a crime analyst with the Rutland City Police Department, between 2016 and 2020, the city had an average of 15 reported stolen vehicles per year. In 2021, there were 42. Since January alone, Rutland Police have received at least eight missing vehicle reports.
Thibodeau suggested most are “ready to pay crimes,” similar to the recent spate of catalytic converter thefts in the city. Emission control devices are often stolen from vehicles and pawned for their precious metals.
Such increases indicate a marked reversal in crime trends from the past 25 years, when vehicle thefts, both in Vermont and nationally, were on a steady decline. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program, thefts from all motor vehicles in Vermont – including trucks, buses, motorcycles, scooters, snowmobiles and ATVs – fell from 585 in 2008 to 264 in 2020. In each of those years, Vermont had the lowest number of vehicle thefts of any state.
In addition to motivations related to drug addiction, why are they on the rise again?
Tully Lehman, senior director of public affairs at the National Insurance Crime Bureau, explained that several factors are at work. Since the start of the pandemic, more and more vehicles have been left parked for long periods of time, making them easy targets for thieves.
Another explanation, ironically, is the increase in the number of new vehicles equipped with keyless starts and smart keys. Although manufacturers adopted these innovations, in part, to thwart thieves’ ability to heat cars, the technology is only effective if drivers take their key fobs with them when parking. Nationally, one in 10 stolen vehicles were stolen because owners left their keys or fobs inside. In Rutland, Thibodeau found that 19% of vehicles reported stolen in 2021 were left unlocked with the keys inside.
Particularly common in winter is the theft of unattended vehicles left running to warm up. In fact, on the day this reporter interviewed Murad, Burlington police had just apprehended two young fugitives from Rutland who had got away with a vehicle whose owner had left it running. One of the teenagers had used the vehicle in an attempt to run over his ex-girlfriend in the Burlington area.
Typically, vehicle thefts only become a priority for police when they pose a threat to public safety, such as with runaway teenagers, or when they are used in the commission of a crime. The latter was the case in mid-January, when a thief stole a truck and ransacked the Intervale community farm, destroying greenhouses and beehives. (As of press time, that case remains unresolved.)
After Janet learned that someone had spotted her car in Essex, she called Burlington Police, but they never followed up.
“The police were of no help,” she said.
Murad admitted that, given his department’s stretched resources, most vehicle thefts are a low priority for investigation.
“Officers will take this report, but it won’t be something they spend time on, to be frank,” Murad said. “But when the driver of this stolen vehicle tries to run over his ex-girlfriend, we start looking for him.”
The only possible good news is that Vermont has an 81% recovery rate for stolen vehicles, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau. But as Lehman pointed out, just because a vehicle is “salvaged” doesn’t mean it isn’t damaged. Many are washed into rivers, burned or stripped for parts.
Janet, whose car was uninsured against theft, takes a different approach to recovering it.
“If anyone can help me find him, I’ll take him to dinner at Hen of the Wood,” she said. “I really I want my car back.”