This blog typically highlights negative trends in policing, so I like to take the opportunity when it’s there to evaluate a positive trend (such as falling gun violence patterns). One such trend is with the ratio of auto thefts ending in a vehicle being recovered.

Auto thefts (defined here as signal 67A incidents) have occurred at relatively stable levels since calls for service records became available in 2010. There were an average of nearly 2,300 auto theft incidents between 2010 and 2014, and New Orleans is on pace for 2,341 such crimes in 2015 as of mid-November.

While thefts are occurring at the same level in 2015 as they have since 2010, it appears that more stolen vehicles are being recovered by police. Vehicle recoveries can be classified as either signal 67AR (simultaneous stolen/recovery of a vehicle) or as signal 58R (recovery of a reported stolen vehicle). The combined number of 67AR and 58R incidents has grown significantly over the last two years compared to 2010 to 2013 levels as shown in the table below:

Auto Thefts and Recoveries, 2010 - 2015. Source: NOPD.
Auto Thefts and Recoveries, 2010 – 2015. Source: NOPD.

About 20 percent of recovered vehicles are signal 67ARs while the remaining 80 percent are recovered without the perpetrator being in them. The rise in recovered vehicles has occurred because both signal 67AR and signal 58R have risen as shown below.

Stolen Vehicle Recoveries by Signal, 2010 - 2015. Source: NOPD.
Stolen Vehicle Recoveries by Signal, 2010 – 2015. Source: NOPD.

The result is a shrinking ratio of stolen to recovered vehicles. There were approximately 2.5 auto theft incidents for every 1 recovered vehicle between 2010 and 2013. That level fell to about 2.25:1 in 2014 and it has fallen even further to only 2:1 here in 2015. The rolling ratio of auto theft to recoveries over 90 days is provided in the chart below.

Ratio of Auto Theft to Recovered Vehicles over 90 Days, 2011 - 2015. Source: NOPD.
Ratio of Auto Theft to Recovered Vehicles over 90 Days, 2011 – 2015. Source: NOPD.

Auto theft occurs throughout New Orleans although a plurality of both stolen and recovered vehicle incidents occur in zip codes 70117, 70119 and 70126.

Auto Theft by Zip Code, 2011 - 2015. Source: NOPD.
Auto Theft by Zip Code, 2011 – 2015. Source: NOPD.

Conclusion

The goal of this blog is not just to identify trends but to use data to explain why they are occurring. This issue provides the conundrum of a positive trend that defies easy explanation. Part of the explanation may lie in a larger percentage of auto thefts (like many other crimes) being marked unfounded recently than in previous years.

The difference in unfounded auto thefts may account for a small portion of the drop in the ratio of stolen to recovered vehicles, but it’s an unsatisfying primary explanation. Roughly 30 percent of auto theft incidents were marked ‘Unfounded’ or ‘Gone on Arrival’ in 2011, while 32 percent have been marked as such as of mid-November 2015. A slight rise, but insufficient to explain the 43 percent drop in the ratio over that period.

A more logical, but difficult to prove, explanation revolves around the rise of surveillance cameras around New Orleans in the form of Project NOLA and SafeCam NOLA. Numbers and locations of citywide surveillance cameras are tough to come by, but it stands to reason that having more cameras makes it easier to find and recover stolen vehicles. More cameras capturing vehicles being stolen likely lead to more information on perpetrators, modus operandi, direction of flight and other pieces of information that help police recover vehicles.

Another possible explanation is the proliferation of anti-theft technology in vehicles makes it easier for police to recover vehicles after they’re taken. Alternatively, more recovered cars may indicate that the market for stolen vehicles is drying up forcing thieves to ditch their stolen cars earlier than they otherwise would have. These explanations are all plausible though difficult to prove.

Making auto theft less profitable would be one way to reduce the number of thefts throughout New Orleans. Analyzing this issue further could help understand what factors are leading to increased vehicle recoveries and lead to improved countermeasures that benefit law enforcement.

This article was originally published by The New Orleans Advocate.