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Budget forces state patrol to eliminate auto theft unit

Car theft investigations in the Spokane area will drop beginning next month as the Washington State Patrol eliminates its auto theft unit.

The July 1 closure comes just after a national study was released showing the Spokane area was fourth in the nation for the rate of car theft in 2010.

“In the current budget climate, all state agencies are cutting muscle and bone,” said Bob Calkins, spokesman for the Washington State Patrol. “The fat was gone long ago.”

WSP Sgt. Dave Bolton and his detectives conducted long-term investigations into major car theft rings and chop shops in the region that often led to arrests for drugs and other stolen property.

But cutting the unit, with its investigative and overtime costs, is predicted to save $3.5 million every two years.

Law enforcement isn’t happy about the elimination but say there’s little choice.

“We’re certainly not going to cut too deeply into (the) missing and exploited children task force and that sort of thing,” Calkins said. “This is a property crime. It’s an important crime, but it’s the one we felt we could best do without (an investigative unit).”

Most of the local investigators will return to patrol or apply for other units. Three sergeants and 10 detectives are losing their jobs statewide, and two vacancies won’t be filled.

WSP has investigated 4,200 car theft cases in the state since 2002 and has made 1,700 arrests. They’ve also recovered about 11,000 stolen vehicles.

That’s about five times the number of vehicles reported stolen in Spokane just last year, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau.

The organization says car theft has decreased nationwide for seven straight years, but the Spokane metropolitan area is an exception. The area, which includes Spokane Valley and Liberty Lake, saw 2,763 car thefts in 2010, or about 586 thefts per 100,000 citizens.

That’s an increase from the 2,218 thefts recorded in 2009. In 2008, there were 2,211.

The surge pushed Spokane to the fourth spot – up from the 18th in 2009 – for vehicle theft hot spots in the country, behind three California metro areas: Fresno, Modesto and Bakersfield-Delano. Yakima is ranked 10th, and Seattle is 13th.

But the ranking doesn’t reflect what’s happening this year. Spokane police say vehicle thefts within city limits have been decreasing since October, although a slight increase was reported last week.

“We’re about 17 percent lower this year compared to where we were last year,” said Ryan Shaw, crime analyst for the Spokane Police Department.

At this point last year, the city had about 1,000 car thefts. This year, there have been a little more than 800.

Shaw credits an emphasis on arresting repeat offenders and the implementation of a new anti-crime team that investigates fugitives and other ongoing issues while on patrol.

“When we see little spikes here and there it’s usually attributed to one of those repeat offenders,” Shaw said. “We’re certainly actively looking at who might be out of jail right now.”