Modesto loses car theft capital title

Sometimes it's good to not be No. 1.

Stanislaus County has relinquished its title as car theft capital of the United States, statistics released Monday show. That title now belongs to Laredo, Texas.

It's not all good news: Stanislaus slipped only to No. 2. And there were still 3,712 cars stolen here last year.

But as National Insurance Crime Bureau spokesman Frank Scafidi said, "In Los Angeles, they lost that many at halftime during a Lakers game."

The crime bureau ranks areas per capita. And they go by metropolitan statistical area, meaning the area reported as Modesto includes all of Stanislaus County.

The auto theft rate here last year was 727 per 100,000 people. That was down from 835 per 100,000 people in 2008, originally reported as 829. Scafidi said the numbers are fluid because law enforcement agencies update and correct reports.

Laredo, though it reported 1,792 stolen cars in 2009, has a smaller population. So its rate was 742 per 100,000 people.

With one exception -- 2007 -- Stanislaus County has led the nation in car thefts per capita each year since 2004.

Modesto police Sgt. Aaron Tait said even with new technology, measures such as bait cars and regular searches of people on probation, car theft remains a big problem. In the Central Valley, thieves mainly steal cars for easy money.

"It's a quick way to make a buck," Scafidi said. "They steal a set of tires and rims, or a neat sound system. They go hide (the car) behind some shopping center or apartment complex and they're gone."

At the same time, the number of cars stolen has been declining steadily. Locally, last year saw a 12.4 percent drop in the number of cars stolen, said Tait, who serves on the Stanislaus County Auto Theft Task Force.

"And it's continuing to drop this year," he said. The local numbers reflect a national trend; car thefts have dropped each of the past six years.

Scafidi and Tait credited the decline to more public awareness and better theft deterrents.

StanCATT works to educate the community on ways to keep cars out of the hands of thieves. Programs such as giving away a steering wheel locking device help, Tait said.

"We targeted these to the most prolific stolen cars: Honda Civics and Accords," he said. "We've really reduced the auto thefts of those vehicles."

Stiffer penalties and prison time for car thieves contributed.

Tait said the StanCATT team hopes that budget cuts won't negate those successes. In Modesto, for instance, Mayor Jim Ridenour's proposed budget for next year calls for a reduction of 35 police positions.

"Obviously with budget cuts, there are potential cutbacks in specialized teams," Tait said. "We're hoping that doesn't occur to this unit. It would be unfortunate to remove personnel from a unit as proactive as this."

In the meantime, StanCATT is looking ahead.

"That was the goal, to get out of the No. 1 spot," Tait said. "But we're still in the top five. Now the goal is to continue the decline."

The Sacramento-based Scafidi said he hadn't heard from representatives of Laredo yet, but he didn't imagine they are too pleased to assume the mantle of the nation's car theft capital.

"They're probably forming up a posse to come up here and get me."

Bee staff writer Patty Guerra can be reached at or 578-2343.

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