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L.A. Urged to Test N.Y. Plan to Curb Auto Thefts

Times Staff Writer

Reflective decals placed strategically in a car’s rear window have become a relatively inexpensive but highly effective means of discouraging car thieves in parts of New York City and should be tried in Los Angeles, a city councilman said Tuesday.

Councilman Ernani Bernardi said the New York City program could greatly reduce auto thefts in this city--now numbering nearly 60,000 a year--and at the same time make better use of police resources.

The CAT (Combat Auto Theft) program was launched in two Queens police precincts in March, 1986, at the urging of state Sen. Leonard P. Stavisky, who represents that auto theft-prone area of New York City. Since then, police have been so impressed with the decal program that it has been expanded to 28 precincts and will soon expand to 48 of the city’s 75 precincts.

Cuts Odds of Theft

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“Cars not enrolled in the CAT program are 40 times more likely to be stolen than those that bear the decal,” Stavisky said in a telephone interview.

CAT coordinator Ray Swieczkowski said that of the more than 18,000 cars in the New York City area enrolled in the program during the last two years, only 18 have been stolen. Six of the stolen vehicles, however, were quickly recovered and returned to their owners. The CAT results compared to a total of 95,000 cars stolen in the city over the same period.

The CAT program employs a relatively simple system:

A car owner drives his vehicle to a police station and fills out a form declaring that his car is not normally used between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m, regarded as the peak auto theft hours. The owner then signs a consent form, patterned after those signed by surgery patients, and is presented with two reflective, tamper-resistant stickers that are applied to the inside of the car’s rear window.

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The consent form and the decals grant police the right to stop the vehicle if it is spotted in the early morning hours. The legal burden of establishing probable cause for stopping a suspect, which can result in dismissed charges, is then presumably met, Swieczkowski said.

Shows Program Working

Questions were initially raised about whether a car owner may legally waive his unreasonable search and seizure rights granted under the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Swieczkowski said, however, that no legal challenge has been filed against the voluntary program.

“The feedback we get from the field is that most of the people are very happy to be stopped,” he said. “It shows them the program is working.”

The CAT program is designed more as a preventive measure than an enforcement one, police point out. Swieczkowski said auto thieves apparently have avoided cars with decals because it takes too long to break in and remove the stickers as well as overcoming other impediments that might block a successful theft.

News of the CAT program’s success has spread.

Sen. Stavisky said he has received inquiries about the decal program from 15 states, Canada, Guam and Scotland Yard in England.

Councilman Bernardi said Tuesday that he heard Stavisky discuss the decal program during a recent call-in show on KABC radio and feels that it is worth a try in Los Angeles.

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“I believe that with an L.A. version of the CAT program, which costs virtually nothing to implement and depends on voluntary citizen participation, we can reduce those thefts and make more efficient use of our (police) resources,” Bernardi said.

Lt. Greg Vasquez of the LAPD’s burglary-auto theft division said the department has heard about the CAT program, but has not decided whether to implement it.

“We’re certainly interested in any kind of program that would deter auto theft,” he said. He added, however, that police are concerned that such a decal program might pose some constitutional problems in certain cases.


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