Lakewood Police Commander Mike Greenwell has seen a little bit of everything in his 38 years as a police officer, but the current wave of car thefts in Metro Denver is unlike anything he has ever experienced.
In the last quarter, July to September, there were 63 car thefts per day in metro Denver, up from 35 per day in the same period last year — an 80 percent increase.
One of those was a van being used by a man painting Greenwell's house.
“He called us and he said, ‘I'm going to have to put off coming to paint your house for two weeks because my van got stolen,’” said Greenwell, who oversees the metropolitan auto theft task force. “He said it would cost him almost $12,000 to replace the equipment that was in his van.”
COVID-19 forced many people to work from home, creating lots of targets for car thieves.
“The apartment complex parking lots were filled up and apparently car thieves didn't hear the governor's order and didn't stay home and they went out and found all these cars,” Greenwell said.
In the city of Denver, car thefts have risen steadily over the years, but accelerated in 2020. The number of incidents has surpassed last year’s total by 33 percent, with about two months left this year, according to DPD data. That’s almost 7,000 stolen cars in the city alone.
“COVID itself has only served to exacerbate this problem,” said Denver Police Chief Paul Pazen. “I don't think any of us anticipated this significant spike.”
It’s the highest volume crime in the city.
The metro auto theft task force reports that last quarter 72 percent of cars were recovered within 30 days, but Pazen said these thefts hit the most vulnerable populations. Older model cars, late 90s to early 2000s, have fewer anti-theft features and are much easier to steal.
“They may have only one motor vehicle,” Pazen said. “It really puts a significant impact on a family that's dealing with some challenges already to then have their mode of transportation taken away.”
Stealing the car is often just the first in what is a chain of crimes. One stolen car retrieved recently had more than 1,000 pieces of stolen mail in it, according to Greenwell. Work trucks are also popular with thieves, he said, because the tools they carry can be pawned.
Because new cars are hard to break into, thieves have targeted working class neighborhoods. But the thefts can still have a ripple effect that reaches all car owners.
“Ultimately we all pay for auto theft through higher insurance rates,” said Carole Walker executive director of the Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association.
The coronavirus has added to car thefts in another way. To avoid overcrowding in jails, and the possibility of outbreaks, car thieves are released from jail to await trial not long after getting arrested, and they go right back out to steal again, according to Greenwell. Chief Pazen said DPD has seen a similar dynamic.
Greenwell said it’s a disheartening cycle.
“We've even had people tell us, ‘why are you putting handcuffs on me? You know I'm not going to jail.’”