FRESNO -- Fresno County has retained for a second year a title it had hoped to shed: Auto-theft capital of the nation.
Despite a crackdown by Fresno police last year, the Fresno metropolitan area, which encompasses all of Fresno County, in 2011 had the highest vehicle-theft rate in the nation -- 808.2 car thefts per 100,000 residents, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau.
The Fresno metro area reported 7,621 car thefts in 2011, up from 7,559 in 2010, according to data from the National Crime Information Center. About two-thirds of those thefts happen in the city of Fresno.
Fresno's No. 1 ranking in the 2010 national report prompted Fresno city officials last year to try to rein in car thefts by launching a "most-wanted" program. The city also considered holding car theft suspects in the Madera County Jail.
A crack police unit was formed last year to track down car thieves. One of its tools: The most-wanted program, with a goal to make the city's most prolific car thieves uncomfortable by splashing their names and faces in newspapers and on television -- and arresting them. The Fresno Police Department also cracked down on chop shops that dismantled stolen cars.
Still, the number of thefts increased by 68 vehicles last year, according to data released Wednesday.
The good news is that the rate of vehicle thefts in the county dropped. Last year's rate of 808.2 car thefts per 100,000 residents was down from 812.4 in 2010.
Police Chief Jerry Dyer said the 2011 auto theft numbers don't reflect the year as a whole. In the first three months of 2011, there were 17.7 vehicles stolen per day in the city of Fresno, Dyer said. In response, the department created the crack auto theft unit, and the city cut the rate to 11.5 stolen vehicles per day by the end of 2011.
The rate has dropped this year to 10.86 stolen vehicles per day, Dyer said.
The goal is to get below the 2009 rate of 8.89 stolen vehicles per day, the chief said.
The 2011 spike was due in part to suspected auto thieves being released from the Fresno County Jail because of overcrowding, Dyer said. The department's auto theft team has put a dent in jail releases by making sure the suspects are charged to the full extent of the law, Dyer said. This way, thieves face serious prison time, he said.
A spokesman for the insurance crime bureau said Fresno shouldn't be wringing its hands over the ranking. Frank Scafidi noted that the bureau's Hot Spots report looks at auto theft rates on a per capita basis. So while the Fresno metropolitan area was ranked No. 1 based on the number of thefts and its population, larger cities had far more cars stolen last year. Los Angeles, for example, had 50,671 thefts.
"If I was living in L.A., I would bury my car in cement to protect it," he said.
Also among the top 10 areas with high car-theft rates were No. 2 Modesto, No. 3 Bakersfield-Delano, No. 7 Stockton and No. 10 Visalia-Porterville.
Nationwide, vehicle thefts dropped 3.3 percent from 2010 to 737,142. Contributing to the decline were the efforts of cities such as Laredo, Texas, which fell from the No. 1 spot in 2009 to 53rd in 2011.
Within two years, Laredo's vehicle thefts dropped 53 because of diligent police work, community support and funding for a special auto theft unit, the National Insurance Crime Bureau said.
Although the city of Fresno has worked to combat auto thefts, some efforts have stalled.
A plan announced last year to try to house car-theft suspects in Madera County jail never materialized. Fresno was trying to prevent suspects from being released early from Fresno County Jail because of overcrowding.
But Lt. John Fisher, with the Madera County Department of Corrections, said it may take a change in state legislation to allow that to happen.