As law enforcement struggles to rein in car theft, Hennepin County Attorney’s Office tries a new path

Minneapolis is averaging one auto theft every hour since the start of 2023.

As of mid-October, police had closed fewer than 2% of those cases, according to data tracked by the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA).

These statistics show the struggle for law enforcement agencies in Hennepin County to rein in the explosive surge of car thefts. Countywide, more than 8,500 cars have been stolen this year, with only 229 cases — about 2.7% — solved or otherwise cleared, according to the BCA.

The vast majority of these crimes occurred in Minneapolis, where reported auto theft rose 180% from the same time in 2019 and have already surpassed 2022’s record-breaking year-end totals. These figures don’t include carjackings, defined as using force to steal a vehicle, which are down this year.

Officials in Hennepin County and its criminal justice system are searching for alternative efforts to thwart the mostly teenage car thieves, such as a hotline through the county’s Family Response and Stabilization Services. The County Attorney’s Office is making charging decisions for juveniles involved in auto thefts within five days now, instead of taking weeks like in the past.

The prosecutor’s office also launched a program in June that partners with law enforcement agencies, truancy teams and county Child Protection Services designed to provide resources to high-risk young people before they end up in the justice system. Police across the county refer juveniles to the program and, if they qualify, the county will offer resources to their families.

The program reflects a new ethos in the prosecutor’s office, led by Mary Moriarty, the county’s former chief public defender who was elected last November on a reformer message of addressing crime’s root causes, especially when it comes to youth.

As of mid-November, 121 kids have been referred by 14 law enforcement agencies to the initiative, officially called the Youth Auto Theft Early Intervention Pilot, according to data tracked by the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office. The majority of referrals are for kids from ages 14 to 16 years old. Some are as young as 7.

It’s still early, said Sarah Davis, director of the Hennepin County Attorney’s Children and Families Division. The participation from police agencies has been mixed. But Davis said most families they have reached welcome the help, and the data so far gives reason for cautious optimism.

Rise in auto thefts

Those who study U.S. crime trends are still trying to figure out what is driving the rise in auto thefts in recent years, and how to stop them.

The pandemic likely played a role in the surge, along with the mass unrest that followed the murder of George Floyd in 2020 and subsequent decline in police staffing across the country, said Ernesto Lopez, a researcher for the nonpartisan Council on Criminal Justice. Another factor is the popularity of social media trends capitalizing on easy-to-steal vehicle makes, such as Kia and Hyundai.

Some cities are seeing those trends abate, such as St. Paul, where auto thefts had declined 41% this summer compared with last year, according to a Council on Criminal Justice midyear report. Others have yet to see such reprieve; in Rochester, N.Y., theft was up 355% this summer, according to the same study.

“It’s really hard to say why,” Lopez said of the varying trends.

Minneapolis Police Chief Brian O’Hara cautioned that clearance data doesn’t capture the full picture of police work on these crimes. He said that if car thieves are arrested and charged with a related crime, such as tampering with a motor vehicle, these cases are still labeled “open” in the BCA data.

Still, using the same metric, Minneapolis and Hennepin County are on track to end the year far below the 2022 national average of roughly 9% case clearance. Asked about Minneapolis’ low closure rate, O’Hara repeated what has become a familiar mantra: The Police Department just doesn’t have enough staffing. And the bulk of the resources are going toward violent, mostly gun-related crimes.

“It’s just a matter of numbers,” he said.

Another contributor to the trend, O’Hara said, is that a small group of juveniles is responsible for a disproportionate number of the crimes. Police know who they are — some have been arrested more than a dozen times — but the criminal justice system has not always held young people accountable, he said.

Davis said this has become a frequent lament from law enforcement across Hennepin County and what she hopes the intervention program can help address.

When Moriarty announced the program, Minneapolis had double the number of thefts from the previous year while charging a fraction of the offenses. Nearly 70% of the cases took place in juvenile court, meaning those charged were younger than 18.

At the program’s unveiling, Moriarty said kids aren’t normally offered these services until they have entered the criminal justice system, which usually means they’ve already been charged with a crime. Limited options exist to intervene with a young person who is a passenger in a stolen car and not the driver.

Davis said her division meets with law enforcement weekly to gather referrals for young people suspected of stealing cars or riding in stolen ones. Cases are disqualified if the person is 18 or older, on probation, has an active delinquency case or lives outside Hennepin County, or if the case that instigated the referral was charged criminally. If the person qualifies, a social worker contacts the family and offers voluntary county services to disrupt the crime cycle.

“We’re not using these referrals for criminalization,” Davis said. “We’re not sharing individual case-level data with law enforcement.”

Of those who have qualified, Davis said, the families “weren’t surprised to hear that there was some concern, and they were really grateful for the outreach and open to having conversations about support.”

She said only about five of those young people among almost 60 have had new cases submitted for charges since the social worker intervened — an early sign that it may be working.

“This feels really promising,” Davis said.

More ‘buy-in’ needed

The Hennepin County Attorney’s Office hopes to expand the program to offenses other than auto theft. But in order for it to work, they need law enforcement agencies to make referrals.

“The more buy-in we get, the better,” Davis said.

Among the agencies that have not yet embraced the auto theft program is the Minneapolis Police Department.

Chief O’Hara praised the program soon after its introduction. He called the collaboration a source of help for desperate families who “don’t know where to turn.” Five months later, the Minneapolis Police Department is responsible for less than 5% of referrals, per county data — despite 81% of auto thefts in the county taking place in Minneapolis.

Asked why the department is not referring more cases, O’Hara said, “We’ll have to look into this.”

Police spokesman Aaron Rose said many of those arrested in Minneapolis are repeat offenders who don’t qualify for the program.

Meanwhile, Eden Prairie has submitted 22% of referrals, despite recording about a half-percent of the county’s auto thefts this year.

Eden Prairie Police Lt. Rob Johnston said his department is participating in what he believes is “a good step in the right direction.”

“I just think that collaborative effort of communication with the departments and the county attorney can really be successful if everybody is working together,” he said.

Johnston said there are open lines of communication with the County Attorney’s Office. Crime analysts across the county are sharing information to identify teens who are not only at risk of stealing cars, but any criminal behavior, he said.

The majority — about 40% — of referrals come from the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office, where Capt. Spencer Bakke oversees a team of two crime analysts whose duties include collecting names of teens they believe are around criminal activity. “The kids in the back seat— not the one behind the wheel,” he said.

Bakke said the Sheriff’s Office analysts are eager for feedback from the County Attorney’s Office, but in the meantime, they are tracking their own submissions.

“We’re monitoring to see if kids are reoffending that we’ve submitted, just so we can gauge our own value and contributions to this. We obviously are stretched for resources and everybody has a lot of different work that we could be doing. So we want to make sure that this is value added, and we’re not just spinning our wheels.”

Star Tribune data reporter Jeff Hargarten contributed to this story.

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