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Aurora police blame COVID, jailing hurdles for record car thefts in 2020

Number of vehicles stolen in Aurora last year increased by more than two-thirds over 2019, partly due to circumstances spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic, police said.

AURORA, Colo. — The number of vehicles stolen in Aurora last year increased by more than two-thirds over 2019, in part due to circumstances spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic, Aurora police said at a city council policy committee meeting Thursday.

About 3,600 vehicles were reported stolen to Aurora Police in 2020, dwarfing the previous, three-year average of about 2,050 nabbed cars and trucks, data show.

> The video above aired earlier this month; The Colorado Bureau of Investigation said there was a nearly 40% increase in auto thefts last year.

The annual uptick in thefts is closely correlated to the onset of the pandemic, according to police figures, with a sharp rise in the average number of stolen cars beginning in the middle of March last year.

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“We’ve learned a lot of things under COVID, and one of them is if car thieves have no fear of going to jail for stealing cars, the number of cars that will be stolen will increase,” said Aurora City Council member Dave Gruber, who serves as chairman of the city’s public safety policy committee.

This story is powered by COLab, the Colorado News Collaborative. 9NEWS joined this historic collaboration with more than 40 other newsrooms across Colorado to better serve the public.

Aurora police were seeing between 40 and 50 cars stolen each week across the city in January and February of 2020, but watched that number surge past 60 in April. Nearly 100 cars a week were being pilfered in the city by the end of the year.

“The increase we’ve seen in motor vehicle thefts is very concerning — it’s a large and growing problem that doesn’t appear to have boundaries,” Councilmember Curtis Gardner, who also sits on the public safety committee, said in a statement. “I think there are several contributing factors, including reduced enforcement and the reduced ability to properly prosecute these cases due to COVID, amongst other reasons … We need to find a way to balance public safety & protection of our residents’ property with the constitutional rights of those accused of a crime.”

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Indeed, police largely pointed to snags in the judicial system as the driving factor behind car thefts. That includes an inability to keep suspected car thieves incarcerated, difficulties with prosecuting defendants and lags in processing evidence from regional crime labs.

Aurora Police Sergeant Matt Novak told lawmakers during the meeting that officers have encountered brazen car thieves unconcerned with the prospect of jail time.

Officers found three suspects in a stolen car, two of which were quickly jailed but secured lax bonds as part of COVID-19 efforts to reduce jail populations, he said.

“All three of them commented, you can’t take us to jail because of COVID,” Novak said.

Police quickly found them in another stolen car but were unable to stop them from accelerating into and injuring a cop. They’ve since been arrested and detained, Novak said.

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Though jail populations have steadily risen since cratering at the onset of the pandemic, Gruber said potential legislation currently winding its way through the state legislature could further embolden car thieves and other criminals in the city.

“We can expect it to get worse if (Senate Bill) 62 goes through,” Gruber said.

The measure, intended to reduce jail populations across the state by tightening rules on who police can physically arrest and how and when they can be detained, passed out of a senate committee earlier this month.

Aside from COVID-related policy changes, cars left idle on streets, driveways and parking lots during the early days of pandemic-related lockdowns also fell into criminals’ crosshairs in 2020, investigators said.

“Environmental factors such as more vehicles sitting for long periods of time in multi-family complexes or vehicles not being driven as much … then became targets of thieves,” Novak wrote in documents presented to an Aurora City Council panel March 18.

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And the issue was not only relegated to Aurora, statistics show. Municipalities across the metroplex also saw a noticeable bump in car thefts in 2020. The average number of stolen cars across the metro area rose from an average of about 233 per week at the beginning of last March to about 435 by the end of the year.

Authorities pinned another wave of increases to the onset of racial justice protests in June following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Police noted a rise in thefts beginning June 7 following a slight dip at the end of May.

The vast majority of the vehicles taken in Aurora are recovered, police figures show, as about 95% of some 3,600 cars stolen in the city last year were found. Denver boasts an even higher recovery rate.

Large pickup trucks were the most popular among car thieves across the Denver metroplex last year, with the Chevrolet Silverado claiming the title of most stolen make and model of 2020. More than 1,100 Silverados made between 1999 and 2007 were stolen in the region last year, data show. More than 900 Honda Civics and 900 Honda Accords from model years in the 1990s were also nabbed.

In addition to trucks and Hondas, local investigators noted a nearly 200% increases in Kia and Hyundai thefts in the second half of last year, most of which were newer models. Police said thieves usually lift the vehicles by using screwdrivers to jimmy ignitions of stock models with few security features.

Overall crime, including property crime, rose by double-digit percentage points in 2020, data show, with a 40% leap in murders, a nearly 75% jump in shootings and an 8% rise in burglaries.

To combat the growth in car thefts last year, police are continuing to surreptitiously surveil suspected criminals, use bait vehicles to lure thieves and spread community awareness through educational efforts.

Aurora police are also relying on automated license plate readers to detect tags of stolen cars and alert traffic investigators.

The city has about 20 of the devices across the city, a department spokesperson confirmed last year.

Aurora police became the subject of international scrutiny last August after one of the readers mistakenly listed a woman’s car as stolen. Police detained Brittney Gilliam and several young members of her family after inaccurately accusing her of stealing her car.

Gilliam’s plate shared the same numbers as a motorcycle registered in Montana that had been reported stolen in the area, police said after the incident. Officers did not cross-reference Gilliam’s plate in a national database, which would have shown that her vehicle did not match the registered state or make of the stolen bike in question.

In the days after the incident, Police Chief Vanessa Wilson said the readers only search by plate numbers — not by state or vehicle make and model.

Officers eventually apologized and released the group of Black women from custody. Video of the incident prompted International outcry, including strong condemnation from a bevy of local lawmakers.

–Staff Writer Grant Stringer contributed to this story.

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