Nearly 30,000 times last year, the call came in to the Los Angeles Police Department. Each one began more or less the same: "Somebody stole my car."
In the typical case, the car was eventually found but no arrest was made. Of all the major crimes in Los Angeles, auto theft is the most difficult to solve or prevent, police say.
Last year, the LAPD's North Hollywood Division recorded 2,145 reports of stolen autos, but made just 80 arrests. That's roughly a 27-1 ratio, the worst record in the city for auto theft arrests. In all of Los Angeles, 29,336 cars were reported stolen last year, with 3,106 arrests made.
Los Angeles ranked third in the nation in auto thefts after New York City with 35,847 and Chicago with 35,570.
"Don't ever even think about breaking into someone's house, and don't ever commit a robbery, but auto theft has always been very lucrative," said LAPD Det. Robert Graybill, commander of the multi-agency Community Effort in Combating Auto Theft.
"For a robbery, you'll get a couple hundred bucks and three years in prison," Graybill said. "But you can steal a car and, with the right connections, sell to some body shop and make several thousand dollars."
Of what police classify as major crimes--murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary and auto theft--the last has the worst ratio of arrests to crimes committed.
"It's one of the hardest crimes to stop," said Det. Sean Mahoney of the North Hollywood Division. "The volume is just so high. Say a car gets stolen at 8 p.m. The owner might not know right away, and we might not get the report until 7 a.m. By then, the car is either dumped or 'chopped'--cut up to be sold for parts."
While the number of auto thefts in Los Angeles increased by nearly 5,000 last year over 1999, the number falls well below the 1991 total of 68,655. In 1990, New York City set a U.S. record with 147,123 vehicles stolen.
Police Scandal Contributes to Rise
Part of the reason for the increase in Los Angeles last year is that police, in the aftermath of the Rampart Division scandal, have abandoned aggressive tactics, officers said. Almost gone are the days when a driver who did not shift properly would be stopped, sometimes a sign of driving a stolen vehicle.
Further, criminals perceive that police have grown even more lax than they have, officers said.
"Perception is important on the street, more so than reality," said Graybill, a 30-year veteran of the LAPD, 26 of those years spent dealing with auto theft.
Car owners have few options for protection.
"There's not a whole lot that can be done to stop auto theft," Mahoney said.
A steering wheel lock is considered a minor deterrent because it takes a little time to remove. But thieves can saw right through the steering wheel, Graybill said.
Electronic tracking systems are fine for helping to locate a car, but they don't prevent theft. And car alarms do little, authorities said.
"No one pays attention to alarms in Los Angeles anymore," said Det. Randy Ballin of the California Highway Patrol, a member of the auto theft task force.
Ballin said he and a fellow officer, both in street clothes, were walking down Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills recently when they noticed a red 308 Ferrari without an identification plate. They opened the unlocked car door, setting off the alarm.
"Here we are in the middle of the day in the middle of Beverly Hills with all these people around and this alarm on a Ferrari going off, and no one even notices us," Ballin said.
A former gang leader in Watts agreed that alarms are almost useless.
"I know these cats. They'll steal your car and have it on a flatbed truck and the alarm is still going off," said Dwayne "Snipe" Holmes, formerly of the PJ Crips of the Imperial Courts housing project.
Police say the two biggest reasons for auto theft are old-fashioned joy riding and sale of parts.
Is there anything one can do to avoid having a car stolen?
"Yeah," said task force member LAPD Sgt. John Artes. "Just buy an ugly duckling that no one wants but you."
Toyotas, Hondas Most Often Stolen
In California last year, Toyota Camrys and Honda Accords of various years accounted for 21 of the top 25 makes and models stolen. Camrys and Accords are popular targets because they are big sellers, they last up to several hundred thousand miles and the parts are often interchangeable among years, authorities said.
The case of Scott and Ani Osborn's Honda Accord is typical.
Osborn, a movie-industry worker, was at his Silver Lake home recently when he looked in the driveway and didn't see his 1995 Accord. He knew right away what had happened.
"He told me really casually, 'Someone stole our car,' " said his wife, Ani, a financial advisor.
The couple filed a police report. Two days later, the Honda was found. The tires, CD player, car phone--and a toy--were missing.
"It wasn't that bad," Ani Osborn said. "At least they didn't ruin the engine or body. At least my kids weren't in the car when they took it."