Columbia to start using ‘bait cars’ to catch thieves

Sunday, September 9, 2007 | 4:15 p.m. CDT; updated 10:02 p.m. CDT, Friday, July 18, 2008

COLUMBIA — Nearly a year after Columbia police reported record high motor vehicle theft rates, police are about to deploy a new stealth weapon to combat the problem.

Columbia police will launch a bait car program in November as a proactive measure against motor vehicle thefts, Columbia police Capt. Brad Nelson said.

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Nelson said he learned about bait cars from information he found online about a program in St. Louis, which had been a success. Since St. Louis implemented its program in 2003, car thefts have dropped 56 percent, from 9,232 in 2003 to 5,916 last year, according to statistics from the Missouri State Highway Patrol.

Nelson also said statistics from the Minneapolis Police Department show that in the 10 years of its bait car program, the number of car thefts have dropped between 20 and 30 percent.

Motor vehicle thefts in Columbia rose 18.8 percent between 2005 and 2006, according to the Columbia police. As of June 2007 — the most current statistics available — the number of stolen vehicles matched the number stolen at this time last year, according to the Missouri State Highway Patrol.

The majority of stolen cars are recovered, Nelson said. But arrest rates for car theft are low — only 33 people have been arrested in Columbia on suspicion of motor vehicle theft this year, according to the Missouri State Highway Patrol.

Although the bait cars have been donated, bringing down the total cost of the program, Nelson said the Police Department will spend about $27,000 on Global Positioning System equipment, digital recording and training. The Columbia City Council on Tuesday approved more than $25,000 to be donated to the program by the Columbia Police Foundation and the department’s Asset Forfeiture Fund. Columbia car dealerships and insurance companies also contributed to the program.

Nelson declined to comment on the number or description of the donated cars, saying that it would tip off potential thieves.

Columbia police also plan to implement a bumper sticker program, similar to a program being used in St. Louis. It allows drivers to attach reflective stickers to their front and rear windshields.

Once the bumper sticker is placed on a vehicle, police may pull over the car if they see it on the road during “suspicious hours.” In St. Louis, police may pull over drivers of cars with the stickers between 1 and 5 a.m.

Columbia police Sgt. John White said police had not yet determined how Columbia’s bumper sticker program will work.

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