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Multi-Agency Task Force Takes Aim at Vehicle Thefts in Santa Maria Valley

The new collaboration includes Santa Maria and Guadalupe police, CHP, the District Attorney’s Office and the National Insurance Crime Bureau

A new task force formed to put the brakes on the skyrocketing number of stolen vehicles in the Santa Maria Valley got to quickly prove its worth earlier this month when surveillance efforts conducted following a tip led to the arrest of two suspects.

In addition to grand theft-auto, the pair may be linked to series of armed robberies in the community, according to Chief Ralph Martin of the Santa Maria Police Department.

“These are the results we expect when you have officers dedicated to a specific mission such as auto-theft recoveries,” Martin said. “And it is our goal to reduce auto thefts in the city of Santa Maria by 25 percent in the year 2015.”

Flanked by colleagues from other agencies, Martin on Wednesday unveiled the new Santa Maria Valley Auto Theft Task Force. 

The task force also includes the California Highway Patrol and the Guadalupe Police Department in addition to the Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s Office and the National Insurance Crime Bureau. 

Last summer, Martin reported crime statistics for Santa Maria from 2013, with a huge spike in vehicle thefts recorded that year.

The trend continued in the first six months of 2014, leading to a series of meetings and letter of agreement to create the multi-agency task force.

“Following that press conference, we were determined to address the problem head-on,” Martin said. 

The city logged more than 700 vehicle thefts in 2013, and 883 last year. By comparison, approximately 400 were stolen in 2012.

vehicle thefts
Honda automobiles account for most of the stolen vehicles in Santa Maria. (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)

“I do know that our numbers are, on average, four times higher than other cities,” Martin said. “If you do a comparison to the city of Santa Barbara, they had approximately 140 auto thefts with a population of 90,000 and we were probably four and a half times that.”

Older Honda Accords and Toyota pickup trucks are the top stolen vehicles, authorities said.

The CHP has formed similar task forces in other communities throughout the state, Martin said. 

“They saw a real need here with the numbers that we have in our city and surrounding areas,” Martin added.

Many of the local thefts are consider opportunistic crimes, such as a drug user getting into an open vehicle and using it for transportation. 

The agency recovers about 70 percent of the vehicles within the city limits, Martin said. Typically, those vehicles are recovered with a few days.

Others cases apparently are connected to professional criminals involved in  “chop shops,” already affected by the increased attention on vehicle thefts, the chief said.

Guadalupe Public Safety Director Gary Hoving said the turning point for his agency’s involvement came after a recent middle-of-the-night case involving a suspicious man found with dozens of shaved keys.

"But not only that — he had a loaded revolver and it was cocked, ready to fire,” Hoving said, noting the links between different crimes. “We can’t focus just on auto theft. They steal cars now. They use drugs later. They’re going to burglarize your house because it’s the same group of people.”

Guadalupe’s numbers are low, Hoving said, adding, “I want to keep them that way.”

On average, a car is stolen every three minutes in California, said Reggie Chappelle, chief of the CHP’s Coastal Division. 

“Crime does not know jurisdictional boundaries,” Chappelle said. “When crime happens, everyone wants to be able to work together so that we can find a way to combine the resources. We share information, we all benefit, and this task force will be a hub between our agencies.”

While there’s no grant to fund the task force, the National Insurance Crime Bureau is supporting the campaign by providing surveillance vehicles and other equipment to support the effort.

Task force representatives gathered Wednesday at the Santa Maria police training facility, but Chappelle said one participant was not represented — vehicle owners. 

“This task force will do its part to catch the professional car thief and disrupt organized criminal activity, but each of us can also do our part by making it more difficult to become a victim,” Chappelle said, adding he is confident they can reduce the rate. 

Mayor Alice Patino reminded vehicle owners to take simple precautions to avoid falling victim to car thieves. They include not leaving the car engine running and using a steering wheel locking device.

“Even if your vehicle is not stolen, we are all victims,” Patino said. “Your insurance rates are higher due to other vehicles being stolen in your neighborhood and in our community. I ask all Santa Maria residents to take the time to secure your vehicles at all times.”

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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