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How auto theft became a dying criminal art in Toronto


Police have put the brakes on auto theft in the Greater Toronto Area and the effect is so dramatic that Toronto police chief and insurance investigators are taking notice.

It’s no coincidence that, amid the staggering decline, the Toronto police and Ontario Provincial Police have disbanded their dedicated auto-theft units.

In Toronto, the larger Major Crime Task Force now investigates auto theft. The OPP Provincial Auto Theft Team no longer exists.

Police haven’t given up on such investigations because cars are still being stolen, but the targets are mostly older models lacking new anti-theft devices.

In Toronto, the number of stolen vehicles has fallen to 4,479 in 2010 from 12,600 in 1999, a decline of about 65 per cent.

The numbers aren’t quite as dramatic when the whole GTA is included, but they are impressive nevertheless.

In 2003, 19,515 cars were stolen across the GTA. In 2010, that number had fallen to 9,728, or a drop of about 50 per cent, according to Statistics Canada.

Year-to-year data show auto thefts across the GTA have fallen for seven straight years.

StatsCan attributes the decrease to the use of anti-theft devices such as immobilizers, car alarms, specialized task forces and targeted initiatives such as the “bait car” program.

The numbers tell a quite a different story from the 1990s when stealing a vehicle was as easy as using a butter knife and a screwdriver.

Insp. Mark Barkley, who joined the auto-theft unit as a constable in 1997, is one of the men who put the gears in motion for change.

The auto squad, operating out of a secret Toronto location, had about a dozen officers trying to chase down every stolen vehicle, sometimes with devastating impact.

“We saw the numbers of auto thefts and we were very aware of the death and destruction and mayhem it was causing,” Barkley said. “Kids were stealing cars right across the country.”

Barkley, now an inspector at 54 Division, recalls how the momentum started to swing against the criminals.

While working in the auto-theft unit, he received a call early in 2000 from Marlene Viau. Her brother, Sudbury police officer Rick McDonald, was killed by a young person driving a stolen vehicle in 1999. She wanted answers.

Barkley took up the challenge and the National Committee to Reduce Auto Theft was formed. (Its other name was Project 6116, McDonald’s badge number.)

The committee held many discussions with police agencies, insurance groups and auto manufacturers.

Barkley would go to the auto makers to examine how vehicles were being built and the auto makers would come to the police lots with new immobilizer designs and a challenge: Try to steal this car.

“We were learning from the people who we were arresting,” Barkley said.

Anti-theft devices were still being refined. After working his regular shift in the auto-theft unit, Barkley would go home and — while raising two small children with his wife — write to policy makers and manufacturers to discuss ideas.

He also approached Transport Canada.

“I wanted to go to the ministry and say, ‘This is going on.’ Let’s get them on our side and say, ‘Let’s shut this down. We’re never going to stop chasing this dog.’ ”

Policies and practices changed.

Partly because of Barkley’s determination, Transport Canada introduced a law making immobilizers mandatory in vehicles built after Sept. 1, 2007.

The devices prevent vehicles from starting without keys.

“We knew when that came into effect that would be the single biggest impact on reducing auto theft,” Barkley said. “We front-end loaded the prevention because the resource demand on chasing them was too severe.”

“Mark was instrumental” in getting immobilizers built into cars, said his colleague at the time, Det. Sgt. Jim Gotell.

The Insurance Bureau of Canada has partnered with Toronto police to reduce auto theft.

“Immobilizers made a big difference,” said Rick Dubin, vice-president of investigative services for the bureau. “Innocent Canadians as well as law enforcement people were being killed. We’ve seen that in several cases. Now, we are interfering with the theft chain.”

Dubin said other factors driving down thefts include stepped-up border enforcement and reader technology that can scan 1,000 licence plates an hour and find matches to stolen vehicles.

“Car theft used to be a difficult issue for us,” Police Chief Bill Blair told a town hall last week. “It still remains a problem. Cars are still being stolen. But the number of car thefts is down (dramatically) in the last seven years.”

The flipside of the equation, Blair said, is that some crooks will use other means to get at the Lexus or Mercedes in your driveway.

They break into homes to steal car keys, knowing most people place them within a few feet of their front entrance.

“Cars are getting harder to steal, but it’s created a new crime,” Blair said. “It’s a crime where people will break into your house and steal your keys.”

Vehicle thefts declining

The annual number of vehicles stolen in Toronto, as reported by Toronto police:

2010 4,479

2009 5,462

2008 6,687

2007 8,506

2006 8,847

2005 5,772

2004 10,248

2003 11,911

2002 11,558

2001 12,235

2000 12,066

1999, 12,600

Top 10 stolen vehicles in Canada for 2011

The top 10 most frequently stolen vehicles in Canada in 2011, as reported by the Insurance Bureau of Canada:

2009 Toyota Venza 4-door

1999 Honda Civic SiR 2-door

2000 Honda Civic SiR 2-door

2006 Ford F350 Pickup Truck 4WD

2002 Cadillac Escalade EXT 4-door AWD

2006 Chevrolet TrailBlazer SS 4-door 4WD

2007 Ford F350 Pickup Truck 4WD

2001 Pontiac Aztek 4-door AWD

1998 Acura Integra 2-door

1999 Acura Integra 2-door

ISB Hummingbird
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