The state of Washington has seen a drastic increase in car thefts since last summer. In fact, it experienced the third highest theft rate of all states in 2022.
Recently, The News Tribune has reported on a number of crimes and reckless activity involving stolen vehicles. A man in Tacoma was driving and crashed into and killed the driver of another vehicle earlier this month. Then on Sunday, two teenage boys who robbed a Gig Harbor gas station fled the scene in a stolen car, crashed it into a building during a police pursuit and fled into the woods on foot.
Local law enforcement officials say there are two main reasons for that.
Last summer, users on social media apps like TikTok began sharing tactics to exploit vulnerabilities in vehicles made by Kia and Hyundai. These videos essentially give criminals a blueprint on how to steal certain types of cars.
In addition, a law went into effect in July 2021 that specifies when and how law enforcement can use force in specific situations. The legislation, HB 1310, was a direct response to the nationwide outcry against excessive use of police force. The law aims to keep the police from abuse of power.
While the new legislation puts law enforcement’s permissible use of force in check, it has had the unintended effect of encouraging criminals to go all out, says Sgt. Darren Moss, spokesman for the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department. Moss says that if a police officer signaled a person driving a car to stop a few years ago, they would do it. Now the thieves act with more confidence.
“It’s just out of hand,” Moss said in an interview. “[Criminals] just drawn in the past. Now that you’ve told them they don’t need to pull over because nothing would happen if they don’t, they speed off. It’s a no-brainer.”
Rise in WA car theft
Although vehicle theft is a nationwide problem, such crimes were particularly more serious in the Evergreen State than most other places. Last week, the National Insurance Crime Bureau released its 2022 Vehicle Theft Trend Report, showing that Washington experienced the third-highest rate of auto thefts in the country last year, with 46,939. Washington is tied for first place for car thefts in 2022 with California and second place Texas – both states have a much higher population than Washington.
The Evergreen State also saw a 31% increase in vehicle thefts compared to 2021, the second highest percentage increase behind Illinois at 35%.
The report also identifies the nation’s top 10 metro areas for stolen vehicles. It listed Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue in seventh place, comprising 30,572 of the state’s total thefts, or about 65%.
“We’re seeing auto theft numbers that we haven’t seen in almost 15 years, and there’s very little deterrence to stop criminals from committing these acts because they’re just property crimes, like shoplifting,” David J. Glawe, President and CEO of the National Insurance Crime Bureau, cited in the report.
Why cars are stolen
There was 748 reported car thefts in Pierce County in February, an average of 75 per day, according to case numbers from the Puget Sound Auto Theft Task Force. This metric is a slight decrease from January and December, with the latter month seeing the highest number of thefts in 2022.
Pierce County has experienced the second highest rate of stolen vehicles in the state, behind King County, according to Sgt. Jeff Carroll with the task force.
Although thefts have gradually decreased, their frequency is still far too high, says Moss. Moss says the number of car thefts so far this year is about three times higher compared to the same period in 2021. He points to social media videos as a primary reason for the crime spike.
Vehicles are mostly stolen outside apartment complexes and in low-income communities, Moss says. The effects are devastating.
“We have 600 extra people [a month] to have their car stolen – their life is ruined,” says Moss in an interview. “They lose their jobs. They can’t take their kids to daycare. Anyone whose car gets stolen in one of these apartment complexes isn’t making a lot of money—it can do a lot of damage to their livelihood. And I think that’s missed, when we just talked about numbers.”
Criminals flout the law more aggressively, especially when approached by law enforcement, Moss says.
“A few years ago, nobody would have even thought about hitting a police car to get away,” says Moss. “It wasn’t even a thought and now it’s just normal.”
How to spot, report a stolen vehicle
The Puget Sound Auto Theft Task Force regularly investigates tips from the public about suspicious vehicle activity. But not everyone may know what a stolen vehicle looks like or what characterizes suspicious behavior.
“The most important thing is to know your area, know your community, and then when things look out of place, that’s when you take some kind of action,” Carroll said in an interview.
Carroll says he is suspicious of vehicles that:
Has no license plates
Has smashed windows
Popped door handle
Is parked strangely or in strange places, like up against a container
Not usually in your neighborhood
Carroll says to keep your neighborhood safe, it’s important to talk to neighbors and know who you live around. If you notice someone who constantly has different vehicles coming and going, it could be a sign of something fishy.
Prevention of car theft
Tacoma police also have advice on how to keep your vehicle safe from thieves:
In February, Hyundai announced that it was offering free anti-theft software upgrades for many of its models. The software upgrade will install an “ignition kill” that immobilizes the engine, correcting the security oversight exploited by criminals. Updates are available now for some models, with the rest arriving in June.
Meanwhile, the Puget Sound Task Force is distributing free steering wheel locks to more than a dozen police departments in Pierce and King counties. People with certain Hyundai and Kia vehicle owners just need to bring their registration number and key to get one.
The following police departments have received locks:
Pierce County Sheriff’s Department — South Hill Precinct
Lakewood Police Department
Edgewood Police Department
Eatonville Police Department
University Square Police Department
Bonney Lake Police Department
Federal Way Police Department
Des Moines Police
SeaTac Police Department
Tukwila Police Department (proof of residency required)