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High-Tech Car-Theft Device Gets Council OK

Times Staff Writer

A controversial, high-tech homing device network to help Los Angeles police cars track down stolen vehicles was unanimously approved by the City Council on Friday, despite charges by critics that the system has major flaws and that the selected firm is being given a monopoly in the lucrative Southern California auto security market.

The 12-0 vote by the council came after lengthy debate and intense lobbying in recent weeks by a variety of interests, including some of auto alarm companies competing for the car protection dollars from the Los Angeles area’s 6 million car owners.

If all goes as planned, the system, manufactured by Massachusetts-based LoJack Corp., should be in place by early next year. The company will install tracking systems in more than 150 Los Angeles police cars. Through a side agreement between the city and county, another 150 will be placed in Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department cars.

LoJack will then market the $595 homing device--a little bigger than a stick of butter--that can be hidden in a variety of locations in a customer’s vehicle. When a car equipped with the unit is reported stolen, police will be able to activate the homing unit with radio signals and determine the vehicle’s location.

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Critics from the auto alarm industry argued unsuccessfully for a 60-day delay of the council decision, saying that the city should allow more firms to develop and market the homing devices. “The consumer is the one who is going to be paying dearly for this (monopoly),” said Carolynne Smith-Drori, a director of an auto alarm industry group.

But LoJack officials countered that they have developed and patented their entire system and do not intend to share it. The council vote climaxed a long political battle by law enforcement agencies and Massachusetts-based LoJack Corp., which had tried unsuccessfully to get state legislation passed last year allowing a countywide test of the tracking system.

“We are taking the policing of auto thefts from the 19th Century and putting it it into the 21st Century, and that is in all of our interests,” said Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky, a supporter of the system.

Los Angeles police officials, joined by representatives of the Sheriff’s Department and the Long Beach Police Department, noted there are tens of thousands of cars stolen in the county each year, often in connection with the commission of other crimes. Last year, the city of Los Angeles reported 63,000 vehicle thefts.

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After evaluating various systems, the LAPD recommended a three-year test of the LoJack system, which police described as the only “mature,” operational system currently available. The LoJack system has been operating for two years in Massachusetts, and received favorable reviews from police. The company claims that stolen vehicles equipped with the units are recovered within two hours on the average.

“It’s a no-loss proposition,” said LAPD Commander James. D. Jones, who noted the $1.5-million police tracking system will be supplied free to the city and, via another agreement, the Sheriff’s Department.

Jones said the LAPD’s agreement with LoJack will not preclude police from testing other systems side-by-side with the LoJack system, and at least one other firm said Friday that it intends to do so.

Question Police Officials

Several council members closely questioned police officials, expressing concern that the recommended cost of the homing devices would mean that low-income motorists could not afford it. But proponents, such as Steven Miller of the nonprofit Insurance Consumer Action Network, a group that fights for low insurance rates, said it could help bring down rates by deterring thefts.

But the auto alarm industry representatives said that LoJack has not served as a deterrent and that auto thefts have increased in Massachusetts. “It’s had no effect,” said Barnet C. Fagel, president of a Canoga Park auto alarm company.


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