How a N.Y. auto theft grant is helping police catch vehicle thieves

Buffalo police are using helicopters to stop car thieves by flying overhead to help officers on the ground set up perimeters to catch the thieves on foot

By Maki Becker
The Buffalo News, N.Y.

BUFFALO, N.Y. — The Erie County Sheriff's helicopter hovered over the Riverside neighborhood of Buffalo on Sunday night, its rotor blades whirring loudly.

It was following a 2020 Kia Soul reported stolen a few hours earlier from the first block of Pearl Street in downtown Buffalo.

On the ground, patrol cars from the Buffalo Police Department and the sheriff's office were able to sneak up on the vehicle.

It stopped on Esser Avenue and two men ran out of the vehicle and into a house.

Two Buffalo men were taken into custody — Jashawn Fields, 21, and Basharah McNeil, 18.

"Both of these defendants have numerous arrests this year alone for stolen cars," Buffalo Police Commissioner Joseph Gramaglia said.

They'll face at least two more, according to police, for operating a stolen vehicle and criminal possession of stolen property.

Faced with an explosion of car thefts over the last year, Buffalo police hope that having an eye in the sky will help them catch more car thieves — and discourage future attempts.

More than 1,500 vehicles have been reported stolen in the City of Buffalo since the beginning of this year. Surrounding towns have reported dozens more than normal in the last year.

The vast majority of the vehicles are Kias and Hyundais, many of which were manufactured without engine immobilizers, making them especially easy to steal.

Using a method popularized on social media sites including TikTok, thieves, many of them teenagers, need little more than a screwdriver and a USB cord to start the cars. In most cases, the thieves take the vehicles on joy rides and dump them. Some go on car stealing sprees, taking one after another.

The cars are often recovered and found with damage that can cost owners thousands of dollars. And with so many thefts of Kias and Hyundais, owners say they're being told there's a months-long backlog for replacement parts.

Police say they face many impediments trying to stop, or at least curb, the rise in vehicle thefts. The culprits are often juveniles, who face less stringent consequences in court. Even if they are 18, vehicle theft is not a bail-eligible crime, which means they remain free while their cases make their way through the courts.

Also, most police agencies have policies that prohibit officers from chasing after vehicles, unless there's a violent felony or threat one of one involved.

Using a helicopter provides a much safer alternative to a vehicle pursuit, Gramaglia said.

"We've got to be very careful when we're trying to stop these stolen cars," the police commissioner said. "We don't want innocent people dying and we don't want our officers getting hurt and dying. ... It's a lot safer to get a helicopter to watch overhead while our police cars set up perimeters and catch them on foot."

Instead, the police are planning details with the aviation units with the sheriff's office and the state police to work in tandem to pinpoint stolen vehicles while still in the hands of the thieves.

"You can't outrun a helicopter," Erie County Sheriff John Garcia said.

The crew in the helicopter has a bird's eye view of what's going on below.

"They are in constant contact with patrol," Garcia said. "Then they can safely maneuver around the city and then our pilots can direct them to where the stolen vehicles are."

The helicopter also has thermal imaging which can help the police see suspects who flee and are trying to hide. "It's so helpful," Garcia said.

It's a similar strategy that Buffalo police have used with packs of ATV and dirt bikes being driven illegally on city streets, Gramaglia said.

Using helicopters also helps collect evidence in prosecutions of car thefts. If a person isn't caught actually driving a stolen vehicle, it's harder to prove they were involved. The helicopters can record video of the pursuits from the air and capture footage of occupants getting out.

The helicopter details are paid through an already existing state auto theft grant, Gramaglia said.

Buffalo police intend to conduct more of these details this summer.

"We are going to continue utilizing officers and detectives and partnering with the Erie County Sheriff's Office Air One to take aggressive action in arresting those that are stealing cars," Gramaglia said.


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McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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