Philly suburb cops get first bait car

By Mari A. Schaefer
The Philadelphia Inquirer

PHILADELPHIA — The video clips are all over the Internet: unsuspecting thieves caught stealing cars - bait cars - set out by police and outfitted with state-of-the-art GPS tracking devices and video cameras.

One driver in California cried when nabbed.

"Oh, no. They got me," he wailed.

The cars have been used for about 15 years, in hundreds of departments across the country and in Canada. Starting soon, they'll make getting away with car theft in Upper Darby a little more difficult. The township plans to introduce its first bait car Wednesday.

"If we can eliminate a crime for preventative measures, it is a win for everyone," said Michael J. Chitwood, police superintendent.

The bait car might be the first in the Philadelphia region. Pennsylvania state police do not use bait cars, said Sgt. James Fisher of the Media barracks, and he was unaware of anyone in the region who does.

Minneapolis has run a bait-car program for 11 years, and thefts have dropped 58 percent, Officer Wayne Johnson said.

"We are getting the hard-core offender, and that is who we want," said Johnson, who runs what he called a "fleet" of bait cars. Two thieves, he said, even took bait cars to drive to court hearings for unrelated crimes.

In Vancouver, British Columbia, auto thefts have dropped 71 percent in the seven years the city has used the decoy cars, according to the Police Department's Web site. And sometimes, just the notice that bait cars are coming deters criminals. Thefts in Yuma, Ariz., dropped after signs warning that there might be bait cars were posted in a high-crime area before the cars were put on the street.

Allstate Insurance donated the Upper Darby car. Allstate restores damaged cars and outfits them with about $20,000 in technology before giving them to police, said Chris Conner, a company spokesman. It has donated 14 bait cars across the country; the Upper Darby car is its first in this region.

Allstate, Conner said, works with law enforcement agencies on antitheft initiatives such as the bait car and public education for other crimes to help reduce insurance rates.

Standard features in the cars include GPS units, video cameras that feed to police laptops, and devices that allow the cars to lock down and set off alarms when the thieves enter, Conner said.

The cars tend to be models - such the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, and Ford Taurus - favored by thieves.

According to FBI crime reports, about 950,000 motor vehicles were stolen in 2008, resulting in a $6.4 billion loss. Those numbers were down from previous years. Across Pennsylvania, 22,243 motor-vehicle thefts were reported in 2008 - an average of 61 a day.

Locally that year, 202 vehicles were stolen in both Upper Darby and Bristol Township. Philadelphia led the state with a little more than 9,000; Pittsburgh was second with 1,259. Chester had 224 vehicle thefts last year.

Philadelphia police do not have decoy cars, but they have been approached by the TruTV reality show Bait Car. The department has yet to decide if it will participate, said Sgt. Ray Evers, a spokesman.

The Upper Darby decoy will be monitored by two laptop computers at headquarters. One will track the vehicle with GPS, and the other will capture video from inside the car.

"We control the locks in the car," Chitwood said. "We can trap them and listen to everything they have to say."

Thieves claim that they're victims of entrapment, but that defense has been unsuccessful.

"Merely affording the person an opportunity to commit an offense doesn't rise to the level of entrapment," said Doug O'Brien, a Houston criminal-defense lawyer familiar with bait-car cases. He said the cases are similar to prostitution stings.

Because police don't even try to keep bait cars a secret, why do criminals keep getting caught in them?

"It is because people can't keep their hands to themselves," Johnson said. "They see something, and they have to take it."

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