Minneapolis police catch thieves with bait vehicle program


In late June, three people stole a vehicle parked on 26th Avenue Northeast. Within five minutes, several Minneapolis police officers pulled them over and, with guns drawn, ordered the driver out of the vehicle.

The trio didn’t know it, but the stolen vehicle was one of the Minneapolis Police Department’s bait vehicles — equipped with GPS as well as video and audio recording devices to catch car thieves in the act.

When the Auto Theft Prevention Program was created 13 years ago, it was one of the first in the country to use bait vehicles. The Minneapolis City Council will vote Friday to approve a grant from the Minnesota Department of Commerce for $102,237 that will help to fund the program through 2013.

Officer Wayne Johnson, who heads the program, said it has been a success. Minneapolis police have convicted roughly 400 people who tried to steal a bait car, and auto theft has been reduced by 66 percent since December 1997 when the program began.

“Other [serious] crime has dropped over the last 13 years, but nothing in the 50’s and 60’s [percent range] … nothing as much as auto theft,” Johnson said.

As of Nov. 28, more than 1,600 incidents of auto theft had been reported throughout the city, according to Minneapolis police data. Police made 135 related arrests in that time period.

Through October, 20 auto thefts were reported in Southeast Como, and 45 were reported in Marcy-Holmes.

The bait cars are just one part of the Auto Theft Prevention Program, which also educates the public on theft prevention techniques and distributes “Clubs” to lock steering wheels.

In addition to surveillance — Johnson can see inside the vehicles from his cellphone —the bait cars can be turned off, and the doors can be locked by Minneapolis police. They can be tracked anywhere in the United States, Canada and Mexico.

While he couldn’t reveal how many vehicles were in the fleet, Johnson said the department tries to use vehicles that are the most likely to be stolen. Honda Civics and Accords are the most stolen vehicles in Minneapolis, he said.

“I look at the top 10 [vehicles] taken in Minneapolis, it doesn’t do much good to have a Jaguar when you never have a Jaguar stolen,” Johnson said.

Minneapolis police park the cars in areas where auto theft is most prevalent in the city. Johnson said he often places vehicles in the Southeast Como neighborhood.

“If I was a car thief that’s where I’d go — there’s so many different cars, and people leave stuff in their cars,” Johnson said.

Although he couldn’t remember a recent time that a bait vehicle was stolen in Southeast Como, Johnson recalled an incident where two “college-looking guys” stole a vehicle, drove it two blocks and then abandoned the car.

Johnson believed it was a prank.

The program doesn’t target spontaneous first-time offenders, but rather focuses on catching repeat auto thieves.

“We’re not getting the teenage kid who’s never done anything wrong and now he saw this car with the keys in it and took it,” Johnson said. “No, we’re getting the 30-, 40- and 50-year-olds that should know better,” Johnson said. “Those are the people we want, and those are the people we’re getting.”

Bait cars alert 911 once they are stolen, so the police department doesn’t need officers to monitor them.

City Councilman Don Samuels said the program is crucial in making Minneapolis citizens feel safe.

“There’s reality and then there’s perception, and auto theft is one of those crimes that really effects the perceptions of the community in terms of how safe people feel because it’s such a personal asset,” Samuels said.

The bait vehicles have also led to a greater conviction rate among car thieves. According to Johnson, 95 percent of bait car arrests lead to convictions.

Fewer bait vehicles have been stolen in recent years. Johnson looks to that fact as evidence that the Auto Theft Prevention Program is working.

“We had thousands more cars stolen when we first started than we do now, but that’s because [auto thieves] know they’re out there,” he said.