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I-Team uncovers how Texas lawmakers diverted millions away from auto theft task forces: 'We don't have the manpower'

I-Team uncovers how Texas lawmakers diverted millions away from auto theft task forces: 'We don't ha
I-Team uncovers how Texas lawmakers diverted millions away from auto theft task forces: 'We don't ha 07:00

( — Lock your doors because the number of vehicles stolen is hitting new highs in Texas. 

When the I-Team started digging into the issue, they found the state diverting millions of dollars meant to fight the crime.

Every hour of every day, thieves are driving off with cars and trucks. It's happened more than 10,000 times in DFW so far this year.

"In my career in auto theft, I've never seen it as high as it is now," said Det. Walter Clifton. He would know; he spent 14 years with the North Texas Auto Theft Task Force. "[The thieves] are getting more brazen—they're stealing them in broad daylight now."

Dallas police major James Lewis says the current spike in thefts can be traced back to the pandemic when supply chain issues drove up prices of cars and their parts. 

"It's harder to get the parts that you need," he said. "Well, when that occurs, that makes the parts more valuable. And when that happens, that makes the risk of stealing one of these vehicles—to some individuals—more worth the chance."

Many cars and trucks are stolen specifically for their parts, especially those with powerful engines and interchangeable equipment. 

Stolen parts often end up at salvage yards. The I-Team was there as task force members searched one Dallas County business, checking every VIN on the property. Among the piles, they found more than a dozen stolen engines, doors, and bumpers. Tucked in the very back: a 2006 Chevy pickup that had been reported stolen days earlier.

"It's a supply and demand state here in Texas," said captain Matt Pederson. As the leader of the Tarrant Regional Auto Theft Task Force, he says most of their cases involve crime rings that operate across city and county lines. "When you start getting into these organized groups, [there are] eight, nine, 10, 12 people involved."

That's how the task forces work, too. 

They combine investigators from multiple agencies who share evidence and develop leads. Pederson says that collaboration helped crack a case at a recent meeting. 

"When this detective talked about the problem she was having in her jurisdiction, she held up a photograph of a suspect vehicle," he said. "And one of my investigators immediately recognized the vehicle from the picture."

But even with auto theft reports hitting new highs, the staffing of the task forces has hit an all-time low.

"A lot of this is manpower—we don't have the manpower," said Clifton. "When I started on the task force 14 years ago, we had 10 or 12 guys full-time. Now we have three."

The problem? Not enough money.

There are 24 auto theft task forces across Texas; all of which operate under the Motor Vehicle Crime Prevention Authority (MVCPA). We all help pay for the authority through a fee on our auto insurance premiums. But the I-Team analyzed 10 years of records and found that as vehicle thefts increased—and the state raked in hundreds of millions of dollars to fight the crime—the authority's funding remained the same or even less.

Archived video from the capital shows how over the years, investigators pleaded with lawmakers to restore funding, but every time members still chose to withhold money meant for the authority, instead leaving those dollars in the General Revenue fund where they could be used to help balance the budget.

The I-Team reached out to several members of the Senate Finance Committee to learn more about why members repeatedly underfunded the MVCPA. Only Senator Royce West of Dallas agreed to speak with us on the topic, saying if the funds were earmarked for the MVCPA, that's where they should have gone.

"I think the public should be very concerned to know exactly how the money was spent," said West. "And that will be something that we'll look into and get you an answer on."

Sen. West's office later followed up with an email, telling the I-Team, "the legislature has the ability to use funding for purposes other than the reasons they were collected to certify the budget." In other words, the state can allocate funds for a purpose, and make you pay for it. But the budget committee has the right to move the money elsewhere.

However, West's office said that was not necessary this year. The MVCPA—and its task forces—will be fully funded for the first time in more than a decade. While last year's budget was $14 million, next year's budget will be just over $24 million.

Great news for investigators, but they could find themselves in the very same fight two years from now when lawmakers meet for the 2025 legislative session.

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