Chattanooga has seen an 85% increase in motor vehicle theft this year, a trend that mirrors that of many other cities as the COVID-19 pandemic crept into communities and altered life — and crime.
Across the nation, spikes in different types of crimes coincided with the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic.
Widespread lockdowns took effect in an effort to slow the spread of the virus. Schools closed, businesses shuttered. And with that, more vehicles were left parked and unattended for longer periods of time as many people have been working and studying from home.
Using data from 24 cities with a population of more than 250,000 — cities like Atlanta, Nashville and Memphis — the National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice found that motor vehicle thefts rose by 11% this summer over last, with some individual cities seeing higher increases than others.
Here in Chattanooga, 1,243 vehicles have been reported stolen as of Sept. 30, according to data from the Chattanooga Police Department. That's an average of four-and-a-half auto thefts per day this year.
Car break-in prevention tips
-Don’t leave valuables in plain sight in your vehicle.
-Place items out of sight before reaching your destination.
-Etch your driver’s license number on all removable valuables, like audio equipment.
-Avoid leaving packages or shopping bags out in the open.
-Lock all your vehicle’s doors.
-Park in busy, well-lighted areas.
-Don’t leave spare keys in your vehicle, even if they’re hidden.
-Call police immediately after a theft.
-Keep a record of the car VIN number, license plate number and insurance information somewhere outside the car.
Source: Times Free Press archives and the Chattanooga Police Department
Many times, stolen cars end up being used in other crimes, including drive-by shootings or robberies, police have said.
Vehicle thefts are often easily preventable. Of this year's thefts, nearly half were of vehicles that had the keys or key fobs inside or in the vicinity of the vehicle. That percentage has held steady for the past three years.
"A lot of people ... the husband will have the wife's spare key in his truck; the wife will have his spare key in her vehicle," auto crimes investigator Ty Cooper said. "This just happened where they broke into both vehicles, found both keys. They took both their cars."
And with temperatures dropping as winter approaches, people begin to leave their cars running and unattended as they warm up. As the car warms up, it puts out steam from the tail pipe, and that's something thieves know to look for, Cooper has said.
Auto thefts rise in the summer between June and July and again in September and October, according to Chattanooga police data.
Neighborhoods and apartment complexes in the police department's "Charlie Sector" — an area that covers the airport, Highways 153 and 58, Brainerd, East Brainerd and parts of Ooltewah — has seen the highest incidence of auto theft since January 2017, the data shows.
"Typically, what you see with that, one of the reasons those apartments have a higher rate of thefts — auto thefts and auto burglaries — is because there's more vehicles in one spot," Cooper said. "And what we're seeing right now is basically, most of these auto thefts are being fueled by auto burglaries. What they'll do, they'll get out, and they'll go to nice apartment complexes and jiggle doors. And if they find a key inside the vehicle, they're gonna take the car."
Another hot spot for auto thefts is the 900 block of Mountain Creek Road.
Other areas of the city are not immune to vehicle thefts, though the top repeat locations had no more than three to 10 reported incidents since 2017, whereas some neighborhoods in the Charlie Sector ranged from three to 25. The Mountain Creek Road area had 16 reports.
While both adults and minors engage in the thefts, it's predominantly driven by juveniles, Cooper said.
"We've always had an increase when school gets released, as far as car break-ins and car thefts. Summertime usually increases our numbers. But for the past — I mean, since this COVID stuff has shut down schools, a lot of this is being fueled by juveniles," he said. "It's definitely off the chain right now for sure."
Cooper said investigators in his unit are getting two to three cases per day.
"The biggest issue we've got — I mean we could literally, if the people of Chattanooga would follow our instructions — lock it, hide it, hold it — our auto thefts could literally be cut over half out."
"Lock your car. If you have to leave something in it, hide it. But for all purposes, [hold it] — if you can take it with you, take all your stuff out your car. Don't tempt somebody to break into your vehicle ... It's a bad thing that you have to do that nowadays, but times have changed."
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