Cruising down a northeast Spokane side street Thursday, police Officer Glenn Bartlett spotted a green truck he thought might have been stolen.
Before Bartlett could stop his patrol car to investigate, a digital image of the Toyota Tundra popped up on his dashboard computer screen. The camera-equipped computer read the license plate number and checked it against a nationwide database of stolen vehicles. It also scanned databases of cars wanted in connection with violent crimes or child abductions.
“We can’t physically run every plate out here,” Bartlett said. “With this technology we can drive around and scan for stolen property, while still looking for criminal activity.”
The truck was clean.
A nearby car, however, was hot.
With a recent spike in vehicle thefts in the Spokane area, officials hope the new technology – known as an automatic license-plate recognition system and paid for with grant money – will be one way to help recover stolen cars quicker.
The number of auto thefts is the highest it has been in 2009, with more than 60 cars reported stolen in one week last month, police said. Since the beginning of August, auto thefts in Spokane have risen from about 20 a week, statistics show.
“We’ve had a significant spike, and we haven’t been able to determine the reason for it,” said police spokeswoman Officer Jennifer DeRuwe.
Spokane County sheriff’s Sgt. Dave Reagan said the recent rise in both city and county thefts may be related to a string of ATM thefts that began Oct. 8. Thieves have been using stolen vehicles to smash through convenience store windows and loot secured ATMs.
“There’s a dozen right there,” Reagan said.
Stolen vehicles are usually dumped somewhere in town, stripped of stereos and valuable personal items. In recent months, sheriff’s detectives have found stolen cars torn apart – typically late-model Hondas, Toyotas and Acuras – and dumped in remote areas.
“We’ve had three or four of those in the last two or three weeks,” Reagan said.
Late-model Hondas are popular among thieves, because of the availability of “shaved” keys – or keys made to match multiple locks, officials said.
On Thursday, Officer Jeff McCollough found a stolen vehicle near Olympic Avenue and Helena Street and arrested Brendon T. Kaluza-Graham.
Police said Kaluza-Graham was in possession of a stolen 1997 Honda Accord outfitted with stolen Idaho license plates. The ignition had been punched and damaged, and inside the car officers found screwdrivers, work gloves, a pair of used rubber gloves, and an Allen wrench ground down to resemble a car key.
Another factor may be the colder weather, when drivers leave unattended vehicles running to warm up.
“It’s like a signature coming out of your exhaust pipe that says ‘steal me,’ ” Bartlett said.