Cops Take Car Thieves For A Ride

Stolen Car Cynthia Bowers
Over the next couple minutes, an average five cars will be stolen across America.

"In the last year, we figured $8.2 billion worth of vehicles were stolen in the United States - that's real money," says Robert Bryant, of the National Insurance Crime Bureau.

That can turn into real tragedy. Car thieves fleeing police can wind up in dangerous chases with deadly consequences.

Now, as CBS News Correspondent Cynthia Bowers reports, a growing number of police departments across the country are going high tech to fight back. In Minneapolis, where 3,500 cars are stolen every year, detectives use specially altered bait cars to help catch the crooks.

"We started a pilot program for six months, and auto thefts went down 37 percent," says Wayne Johnson, of the Minneapolis Police Department.

They're called bait cars because police wire them up with sophisticated electronics, put them out into high theft areas and then dare thieves to steal them.

But soon after they do, the joy ride's over. Police are alerted to the theft, and whenever they choose, dispatchers using these computers can send a signal that disables the engine - but not the steering or brakes - so the car rolls to a stop. They can even lock the doors and essentially trap the suspects inside the impromptu prison until officers arrive.

And, to make arrests stick, all the action's caught on tape.

"Minneapolis has never gone to trial in one case," says Johnson. "How can you fight your face in someone else's car?"

On the street, the word's gotten out as the prisoners have been brought in.

Critics have complained that using bait cars constitutes entrapment, but they've been so successful that dozens of departments now use them. They're all looking for ways to fight a disturbing trend. At a time when most other major crimes have been declining, auto theft's becoming a growth industry.

Following a decade long slide, thieves started stealing more cars in 2000 and clipped an alarming 5.7 percent more in 2001. And the upswing is expected to continue when the 2002 numbers come in later this year.

Two big reasons: property crimes like car theft tend to spike when times are tough and terrorism concerns have made money tight to fight most non-violent crime.

But in Minneapolis, spending some money has made the streets safer.