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Denver Metro Area Sees Big Increase In Vehicle Theft During COVID, Some Blame Lack Of Jail Time For Suspects

LAKEWOOD, Colo. (CBS4) - This is year setting up to be a record year in terms of vehicle thefts across the state of Colorado -- and law enforcement says there's only so much vehicle owners can do to protect themselves.

"What we're seeing in the Denver metro area, in particular, is that criminals, because of COVID, they weren't going to jail, and so there was no reason for them to stop stealing a car," said Mike Greenwell, with Lakewood Police and the state's Motor Vehicle Theft Task Force.
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"We see that our criminals, their bonds are, if they have a bond, are very low. We've seen judges set bonds at one dollar, five dollars, not give them bonds, release them on a [personal recognizance] bond and they just go out and they just repeat."
"As a matter of fact, we have a couple of cases where the person was released on a PR bond, went out and from the jail parking lot, stole a car and drove off in it -- and to me it's contempt for the law. They're not being held accountable."
Greenwell said prior to the pandemic, motor vehicle thefts were on a downward trend, but have since skyrocketed.
"We thought, going into 2020, we're gonna have even a better year, we're gonna get this reduced, and then COVID hit, and motor vehicle theft skyrocketed," he said. "It took off like nobody's business. It increased almost two-fold within about three months."
In 2019, there were 20,193 vehicle thefts across the state. In 2020, that number jumped to 27,664. Through September of 2021, there have been 26,783 -- with an average around 3,000 per month.
The Denver Metro area comprises 52% of the state's population, but 73% of the state's motor vehicle thefts.
Greenwell says he knows the courts are also overwhelmed with cases involving more serious offenses, but he's concerned about the trajectory of the number of motor vehicles being stolen.
"If you compare 2019 year to date to 2021 year to date, the Denver metro areas had 120% increase in motor vehicle thefts."
In Broomfield County the increase for the same period is 352%, in Douglas county it's 164%, and in Jefferson County it's 135%.
"The reason that bothers me isn't just because they steal a car, it's who that stolen car impacts. I got into this job 38 years ago to serve this community and to protect the community, and when I see people being victimized in a community over and over again, because criminals are allowed, that bothers me and there has to be some changes," said Greenwell.
Ricci-Lee Hotz lives in an apartment in Jefferson County and her 2015 Hyundai Sonata was targeted three times before someone finally made away with it.
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"In August I had my first attempted theft, I would say. They broke the door lock and then the ignition, they damaged to a point where the car wasn't drivable," said Hotz.
She always kept the car locked, she even installed security cameras above her parking stall.
"I removed everything of any sort of value from the car and made sure it wasn't tempting in any way other than the vehicle itself," she said.
It wasn't long after she installed a camera, that she caught a woman scoping out her car, trying the door handle and talking to someone off camera.
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A week later, a man in a black hoodie came back, and in three minutes he had broken the lock and driven away with her car.

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"Some of the things I've heard is with my particular type of vehicle is it is easier to break in with non-key based devices," Hotz laughed. She said she was told even as something as simple as a screwdriver could be used with some models.
Her Hyundai is listed as the third of the 10 most targeted vehicles in the metro area.
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"A car owner can only do so much," said Greenwell.
For Hotz, when buying a new car, she said she has a set of requirements she had never previously considered.
"Having the GPS tracking systems in the cars, the low jack type systems, where the engines can be immobilized," she said.
While Hotz's car hasn't been recovered, Greenwell say the task force recovers almost 90% of all stolen cars, and around 70% within the first 30 days.

He says most law enforcement agencies will provide a steering wheel immobilizer or "Club" for free, if a driver inquires. He said it doesn't always prevent theft, it does act a as a deterrent.

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