By JUSTIN MUSZYNSKI
In 2020, most area communities saw a drastic spike in car thefts and vehicle break-ins - something that has plagued most of the state.
Locally, New Britain, Newington, Berlin and Southington appeared to have the biggest increases.
In New Britain, 191 stolen vehicles were reported in 2019, compared to 275 in 2020, and, in that same time frame, car burglaries more than doubled from 205 to 496, as of Dec. 28.
Newington police reported seeing an increase from 53 stolen cars in 2019 to 90 in 2020, and a whopping jump from 173 larcenies from a motor vehicle to 420 in the same time frame.
In Berlin, stolen motor vehicles increased fourfold from 2019 to 2020, jumping from 16 to 64. Additionally, Berlin also saw 52 thefts from a motor vehicle in 2019 and 255 in 2020, as of Nov. 30.
Southington police reported 41 stolen vehicles in their town in 2019, compared to 93 in 2020. Vehicle burglaries also went up last year in Southington, skyrocketing from 114 in 2019 to 410 in 2020.
Plainville police reported increases in car thefts and burglaries, though they were much smaller than many other area towns, while areas like Plymouth and Bristol’s numbers either held steady, increased slightly or even dropped.
In Plainville, 20 motor vehicle thefts were reported in all of 2019, compared to 33 for most of 2020, and larcenies from a motor vehicle increased from 122 to 191 in the same time frame.
Bristol police saw just a few additional car thefts in 2020, as their numbers went from 106 in 2019 to 109 a year later, and fewer larcenies from motor vehicles, which fell from 137 to 107 in 2019 and 2020, respectively.
Plymouth police reported 20 motor vehicle thefts in 2019 and 19 for most of 2020. In that same time period, thefts from motor vehicles went from 46 to 60.
Furthermore, Connecticut as a whole ranks worse than its neighboring states in motor vehicle thefts, according to AAA. The Nutmeg State is rated as 38th in the country in stolen vehicles, while states like Massachusetts, New York, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine rank 48th, 49th, 50th, 51st and 52nd, respectively, AAA said.
“I’ve never seen such a substantial increase in my 35 years of policing,” Newington Police Chief Stephen Clark said of the numbers in his town. “It’s drastic and substantial.”
Clark said he believes the rise in car thefts and burglaries this past year was due to a combination of things, which include factors related to the pandemic, as well as state laws that prohibit pursuits for property crimes and issues within the juvenile justice system. Though he said he doesn’t advocate that police should be able to engage in high-speed pursuits for something like a car break-in, Clark said the people committing these crimes - typically juveniles - know what they can get away with.
“They know all they have to do is get back in the car and we can’t pursue them,” Clark said. “We’re seeing it frequently, and they’re aware of that.”
Newington town officials in December wrote a letter to legislators asking for support in fighting the drastic rise in car break-ins and thefts. Clark said one of the main issues the state faces is repeat offenders in the juvenile justice system. While the system has a number of ways for youths to avoid things like detention and convictions, all of which Clark said work very well on some individuals, others are “well beyond control of their parents, guardians or an agency.”
“We need legislative support,” the Newington chief said. “There has to be accountability in the juvenile justice system.”
State police over the summer announced the findings of a task force put together to address the rise in car thefts in Connecticut, finding that, though it was believed by some in law enforcement at one time that juveniles were merely stealing vehicles for “joy rides,” these thefts are actually being conducted in an “organized, directed manner” for the purpose of “rentals” that can be used to commit other crimes. State police say cars are generally stolen from suburban areas before ultimately being found abandoned in cities like Hartford.
Bristol Mayor Ellen Zoppo-Sassu speculated that Bristol’s car theft numbers may not be so high because there’s no easy way to jump onto the highway there. A town like Newington, she added, has a close proximity to the Berlin Turnpike, which acts as a pipeline into Hartford.
Zoppo-Sassu also said Bristol officials are looking to avoid a rise in motor vehicle thefts and break-ins by putting information out to the public.
For example, Bristol Deputy Chief Richard Guerrera said, an overwhelming amount of car thefts involve the keys or key fob being left in the vehicle. It’s very rare to see a vehicle “hot wired,” he said.
In five of the last six reported stolen car cases in Bristol, not only were the keys in the cars, but they were also left running and unoccupied.
Guerrera said vehicle owners locking their doors and removing keys and valuables has thus far proven to be the most effective way to fight against stolen cars. It’s a crime that can be very difficult for police to stop, he said.
“It usually comes in sprees,” Guerrera said. “You usually get 10 to 15 cars being broken into in one section of town and then you won’t see anything for a week or more. The chance of them coming back to that area is slim to none, so it’s difficult to pinpoint where it will happen next. I don’t know if it’s going to happen next on Smith Street or the other side of town. It’s so sporadic.”
Clark added that the people stealing these cars seem to be becoming more savvy, as well as bold. For example, vehicle burglaries usually involve unlocked cars, but in one night in December, Newington had more than 100 vehicles broken into, many of which involved smashed windows. Juveniles have also started entering garages more, seeking a car to steal.
Additionally, Clark said, police have found that thieves have done things like tinted a stolen car’s windows or changed its rims before abandoning it. There have also been a few reports of car owners confronting thieves only to get a gun drawn on them.
“People in town are very concerned about it,” Clark said. “But we can’t do it on our own. We need legislative support.”
Justin Muszynski can be reached at 860-973-1809 or firstname.lastname@example.org.