‘Watch Your Car’ anti-theft program faces lack of funding

Underfunded and outdated, the decal program might cease service at the end of the year.

Kevin Behr

Five hundred cars have been stolen in the University’s precinct since Jan. 1, according to Minneapolis police statistics. Citywide, thieves have purloined more than 3,400 vehicles so far this year.

Common tips to prevent auto theft include locking doors, removing valuables, parking in lit areas and purchasing theft deterrents like The Club or a car alarm.

But even after taking these precautions, drivers are still at risk for vehicle theft.

The Minnesota Watch Your Car program gives its members a further layer of defense against auto theft.

Once drivers sign up for the program, they are sent a letter explaining the service and decals to place on both the windshield and back window of their vehicles, said Alicia Mages, treasurer of the Minnesota Crime Prevention Association and program administrator.

Drivers must state that they normally don’t drive their cars between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m., she said.

“This is the time when most auto thefts are occurring,” Mages said.

If police spot a car with the decals between those times, it gives them probable cause to pull the vehicle over.

At this point, officers must use discretion on how to handle the stop, said Minneapolis Police Lt. Greg Reinhardt.

“If the car is registered to an elderly person and there’s an 18-year-old behind the wheel, something’s not right,” he said. If that is the case, the officer could pull the driver out at gunpoint and follow the guidelines of a felony traffic stop, Reinhardt said.

The owner of the vehicle has the option of registering up to two alternate drivers, Mages said. If the person does not fit the description of one of the registered drivers, he or she will be arrested for auto theft, she said.

One of the major drawbacks of the program is the impossibility of measuring its effectiveness, Mages said.

Only about 1,500 people registered for the program and there have never been any arrests, she said.

“It works like a neighborhood watch sticker,” Mages said. “If a crook sees that sticker (which explains the program), he’ll just move on to the next house or car.”

Andrew Ehrlich, a management information systems first-year student, commutes to campus every day and said he isn’t too worried about his car being stolen.

“But if you have a car and live on campus, it would be (a concern),” he said.

First-year anthropology student Michele LaBathe said she does not have a car on campus but would sign up for the Watch Your Car program.

“I think it’s really smart,” she said.

Decals might be outdated

The future of the program is uncertain. It will cease operation Dec. 31 unless an agency provides money, Mages said.

She cited expensive updates to the program’s Web site and the fact that the program doesn’t generate money as reasons for the shutdown.

On the Web

For more information:
GO TO: www.mnwyc.org
CALL: (651) 793-1109
People may also sign up at Minneapolis Police precinct houses.

The program received an initial grant of $180,000 in 2003 from the Bureau of Justice Assistance, Mages said. After that, no extra money was provided, she said.

Mages sent out a letter to a number of organizations including Hennepin County and the Anti-Vehicle Crime Association of Minnesota six months ago asking for help.

“Over 50 percent of the (Watch Your Car) members live in Hennepin County,” Mages said, “Thinking they had the majority of the people registered for the program, that may be something they would want to look into.”

But as of Monday, Watch Your Car had not received a favorable reply.

Ehrlich said Watch Your Car is a good idea, but it needs more support from people to keep the program alive.

LaBathe said she would tell her friends about the program.

Reinhardt said technology will outpace Watch Your Car in the future because of tracking systems like OnStar and LoJack.

“More and more vehicles have GPS in them,” he said. “Tracking your vehicle once it’s been stolen is going to be an easier thing.”

Baiting thieves

One of the more effective ways Minneapolis police fight auto theft is with the Bait Car Program, Reinhardt said.

During the first six months of operation, which kicked off in 1997, auto theft in the city dropped by 37 percent, according to the program’s Web site.

Police leave a “bait car” wired with video cameras and a GPS system in a high-theft area, enticing thieves to jump in and steal the car, he said.

The GPS system alerts police of the theft and allows them to track the vehicle, but the thief won’t get very far.

Police have the ability to shut the car off, lock the doors and roll the windows up, trapping the thief inside, Reinhardt said.

“It’s a very successful program,” he said.