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Why Sacramento PD is solving more car theft cases than other agencies nationwide

CBS Sacramento examines the pros and cons and privacy concerns.
How more cameras are helping Sacramento police catch more car thieves 05:19

SACRAMENTO - If your car is stolen, the odds are your car will be found but the person who stole it will almost never be arrested. In conjunction with our CBS News national investigative team, we've been digging into stolen car investigations across the nation, and here at home. 

In Sacramento, they're more likely than other similar-sized agencies to recover your car and make an arrest. Why? CBS News Sacramento got an exclusive look inside Sac PD's real-time crime center to get a behind-the-scenes view of, what could be, at least a partial solution to this nationwide problem. 

Recovered Without Closure 

For years, our viewers have been sharing their stories of lives upended after discovering their cars had been stolen. Their experiences range from daily frustrations to devastating impacts.  

In each case, their stolen vehicles were eventually recovered, though they were often undrivable. In many cases, they could not afford to get their cars out of impound, where they had been towed after they were found.  

Adding insult to injury, their car thieves will likely never be caught.

Nationwide, six out of 10 stolen cars will be recovered, But CBS News reviewed car theft data from 14 major cities and found that, on average, suspects were identified in fewer than 7% of car thefts last year.

The good news is that your odds are better if your car is stolen in Sacramento where at least eight out of 10 cars are found. And, the Sacramento Police Department has the highest auto-theft solve rate of all the agencies we reviewed.


The Secret to Sacramento's Relative Success 

"So we're looking at cameras that the police department has put up throughout the city," said Sacramento Police Department Detective Stephen Colombo describing the wall of montors inside Sac PD's real-time crime center. "Once we get the alert, detectives can go back and review the video and see the path of travel of their suspects."

The police department has a network of 175 cameras, known as PODs or police observation devices. Most are attached to license plate readers linked to a national FBI database of stolen cars. When a stolen plate from anywhere in the country is flagged in Sacramento, they can follow the car on their network of cameras and notify the nearest patrols.

"(It's) almost like kind of a helicopter effect, except we're not in a helicopter, we're just in our cubicle," said Colombo.

He explained that their primary focus is to return victims' stolen cars. But as they've increased cameras, their arrests have increased too. The agency has tripled its annual number of solved cases over the past five years, in part, because Sacramento is now solving other cities' auto-theft crimes too.

Half the arrests last year were for cars reported stolen in other cities and states, later flagged by Sacramento Police Department's cameras as they drove through the region.

Officer Cody Tapley says the crimes are not solved by cameras alone. 

"All the cases are funneled through the auto theft unit," said Tapley. The Sacramento Police Department has a rare, dedicated, auto-theft unit with two detectives, an analyst, and a sergeant.

"I think it's a very, very pivotal part of that puzzle," said Tapley. "Detectives can actually go and knock on doors and look for additional surveillance cameras and pull footage from the real-time crime center to hopefully get those investigative leads and make an arrest."

Most Cases Still Go Unsolved

But even with all the cameras, Sac PD's solve rate is just 13%.

While 13% is better than most, it is still a drop in the bucket. Why aren't they making more arrests? 

"Auto theft is a regional problem," Tapley said. 

He explained that many cars stolen in Sacramento are driven out of the city or state, so they have to rely on other agencies, which may have fewer resources. And, he says, many cars that do stay in Sacramento are used for overnight crimes or joy rides and are abandoned before they're ever reported stolen.

"When somebody steals a vehicle, we have a very narrow window of opportunity to make that arrest while they're operating that vehicle," said Tapley. 

He notes that the California vehicle code requires evidence that the suspect was actually driving the stolen car, so things like fingerprints aren't enough to convict. But Detectives can go back and search for video evidence based on leads. Per city policy, they keep these recordings for 90 days.

Privacy Concerns 

While the cameras may help solve crimes, they come with many privacy concerns. 

"So it's a need to know, right to know. Obviously, we're looking for criminals and criminal behavior," Tapley said. 

He stresses that there must be a crime and case number associated with any request to access the video or data.  He also points to the blue light and clear markings identifying the cameras, which are all in public places.

However, privacy advocates also cite concerns about data sharing with other agencies.

CBS Sacramento printed out a 21-page list of all of the agencies that have access to Sac PD's information.

"They don't have full free-range access to it," Tapley clarified. "We're allowed to provide and give them the information that they request." 

Tapley also explained that outside agencies don't have access to their cameras -- just the data.

Critics have raised concerns that conservative states with abortion bans could use license plate reader data and camera networks to track people who come to California for out-of-state abortions. Tapley clarified that they only have sharing agreements with agencies in West Coast states

Another concern? AI errors can lead to wrongful arrests. We saw a real-time example of that while we were in the crime center. The system misread a plate and erroneously flagged a car as stolen. 

"This is an instance where the system thinks that it's an F and that is an E," Colombo explained as he pointed to the giant image of the car, the plate, and the actual stolen plate number on the monitor. 

He says the Sacramento Police Department requires human confirmation before any stop, matching the photo to the flagged car and plate number to the actual stolen plate number and the make and model of the car of the stolen car.

Consumer Protections 

Still, the vast majority of car thefts will go unsolved in Sacramento and nationwide.

And far too often, when victims get their cars back, they're beyond repair and with no one to hold accountable.

Consumer advocates urge car owners to pay for car insurance policies that cover theft. Several states are now suing certain carmakers, alleging their cars are too easy to steal. 

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