If you live in one of Seattle’s 53,000 households without a car, I guess you can breathe a sigh of relief — you’ve greatly reduced your risk of being the victim of property crime. For the rest of you, prospects aren't so great.
It happens every four months or so, Rudi Schmidt says. He and his wife leave their Sand Point condo in the morning to take the dog for a walk, only to find a row of cars with their windows bashed in, the street littered with shards of broken glass.
“When we have these incidents, it’s 10-plus cars that get hit at one time. Then it goes away for a while,” Schmidt said. “And then we get hit again.”
Seattle has one of the highest rates of property crime among major U.S. cities, and like a lot of folks, Schmidt is concerned. After I wrote a couple columns on the subject this summer, a lot of readers let me know about crime in their neighborhoods.
Schmidt emailed me after the most recent car prowl hit his block of Sand Point Way, near the entrance to Magnuson Park. He says this same thing has been happening periodically since he moved into his condo in 2013.
And that made me wonder: How much of property crime in Seattle involves motor vehicles?
I already knew that car prowls are, by far, the No. 1 most reported crime in the city. Last year, there were about 12,400. Then there’s stolen cars, the fourth most-reported crime category — more than 3,000 reported in 2017. Add in the theft of all other types of motor vehicles, theft of automobile parts and accessories, and license plates, and you get a grand total of about 17,400.
That’s nearly half — 46 percent — of all the roughly 38,000 property crimes reported in Seattle last year.
If you live in one of Seattle’s 53,000 households without a car, I guess you can breathe a sigh of relief — you’ve greatly reduced your risk of being the victim of property crime.
But that’s not many of us. And each year, the total number of cars owned by Seattle residents keeps going up. The current tally is a whopping 460,000.
That’s a lot of opportunity for a criminal, and car prowls are a crime of opportunity, says Mark Garth Green, deputy chief for the Seattle Police Department (SPD), who overseas investigations of property crime.
“There are areas that suddenly increase in the number of car prowls. A lot of times it’s one person in an area, and they’ll hit three or four cars,” he said. “It’s not this roving band that’s suddenly coming in and targeting this area.”
Garth Green says that, like most types of crime in Seattle, the majority of car prowls are committed by a small number of repetitive, prolific offenders. When there’s a sudden spike in car prowls in an area, investigators will look to see if one of those prolific offenders has recently been released from jail.
If an offender has had success prowling cars in a particular area, chances are that person will return. And a lot of that has to do with what folks leave in their cars — even if it’s just a gym bag filled with sweaty clothes, a thief doesn’t know that.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s a Ferrari or a 1984 Honda, if you leave a duffle bag on the back seat, it’s prone to being car prowled,” Garth Green said.
He says that people with substance-abuse issues commit a large percentage of property crime in Seattle, and that’s particularly true of car prowls. To a lesser degree, it’s true of motor vehicle theft, as well.
When folks think about vehicle theft, they often imagine something they’ve seen on a TV show, Garth Green says — criminal gangs stealing cars and chop-shopping them, or putting them on a boat and moving them offshore. But that’s not the reality. Most of the time, someone might steal a car simply as a mode of transportation for a couple days, or for the ability to commit other crimes.
“It’s not like this movie-type thing where you’re going to bust up this ring and solve 10,000 auto thefts,” Garth Green said. “A lot of folks who are drug addicted or drug dependent are involved with auto theft as well because it’s a mode of transportation. They’re not stealing it to sell it.”
There was a big spike in reporting of both car prowls and motor vehicle theft in 2013 and 2014. Car prowl reports have come down a bit since then. Motor vehicle thefts are significantly lower from their peak of nearly 5,500 in 2014.
Garth Green attributes that success to investigations that have apprehended prolific offenders, to community outreach and messaging, and some intervention efforts by SPD.
For example, the department has worked with rental-car companies at SeaTac, which pass on key information to visitors to Seattle.
Through a grant, SPD was able to provide steering-wheel locks to folks who live in South Seattle, and who have cars that are at high risk of being stolen (late model Hondas are the most vulnerable, in case you’re wondering).
Last month, the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) released its crime statistics for cities across the nation, and they show Seattle’s rate of reported property crime ranks eighth highest among the 50 largest U.S. cities. That’s a bit of an improvement from 2016, when we ranked sixth.
Of course, the problem with crime statistics is that so much crime goes unreported. It varies greatly between different types of crime. A Bureau of Justice Statistics report found that theft, such a car prowls, is one of the least-reported crimes. Nationally, only about 30 percent are reported to police. Auto theft, on the other hand, is the single most-reported crime, at about 80 percent.
And according to the FBI data, Seattle ranked exactly in the middle among major cities for motor vehicle theft — 25 out of 50.
Unlike many police departments, SPD allows you to report car prowls and other nonemergency crimes online.