It happens all the time, police say. A shopper finds a space, parks the car, heads for the store.
In what may be just a few minutes inside the shopping center, the car is stolen.
Auto theft in Los Angeles County has increased 34% since 1984, the California Highway Patrol said. In the San Gabriel Valley, it has jumped 96% since 1984, according to FBI crime statistics.
To stop the auto thefts, Los Angeles County has begun installing a high-tech homing device network designed to help police track down stolen vehicles. In the San Gabriel Valley, the Azusa Police Department is the first to have the device installed in one of its patrol cars.
"This will definitely save a lot of time and increase the rate of recovery for stolen vehicles," said Azusa Police Chief Lloyd Wood. The Azusa City Council recently approved funding for three more tracking units, which cost $1,800 each.
"To watch it work is absolutely incredible," said Councilman Harry Stemrich. "It is revolutionary."
The system, manufactured by Massachusetts-based LoJack Corp., looks like something out of a James Bond movie. It has two parts, one for individual cars, which will be available through auto dealerships, and one for police cars, provided by LoJack.
In individual cars, a small radio device about the size of a chalkboard eraser, powered by the car battery, is hidden in one of 30 places around a car. Each homing device has a five-digit code paired with the car's vehicle identification number in the state police crime computer. Once a report for a stolen car is filed, police will enter the five-digit code into the computer, which will automatically go over a network of radio transmitters throughout Los Angeles County.
Patrolling police cars equipped with the LoJack tracking computers, will receive the broadcast of the LoJack unit in the stolen car, and zero in on it. Los Angeles County, which in 1988 reported 114,785 stolen vehicles, signed a five-year contract with LoJack in March, 1988, said Terry Solay, LoJack general manager for California operations. The LAPD, the Sheriff's Department, the California Highway Patrol and the other 46 police stations in the county are scheduled to receive one complimentary tracking computer from LoJack.
Homing devices for individual cars are scheduled to be on the market June 1 and will cost about $600.
Individual police stations throughout the county are either installing or awaiting installation of the units in their patrol cars. The LAPD now has 18 patrol cars equipped with the LoJack system, the most of any department in the county, said Sgt. Jeff Hulet, project director for the LAPD stolen vehicle recovery network.
LoJack introduced the tracking device in Massachusetts more than three years ago. Now, 125 state police and 200 local police vehicles there are equipped with LoJack. It has received favorable reviews from both police and consumers. And, according to police statistics, 95% of stolen cars with the LoJack were recovered.
Kathleen Tauer, of Framingham, Mass., on the outskirts of the Boston metropolitan area, says the LoJack saved her new car. Tauer had just bought the car when it was stolen from the parking lot of a shopping mall where she worked part time. She called the police at 9:30 p.m.; seven minutes later, her car was found in South Boston. The only damage was a popped ignition and few scratches.
"I had searched for this car for over two months . . . it was my dream car," Tauer said. "When they (police) called me and told me they found it, I rushed right over to get it."
Police in Los Angeles County are hoping to duplicate the results of Massachusetts. In that state, the rates of stolen vehicle recoveries and car theft arrests have risen, and there has been a decrease in the number of cars ending up in "chop-shops," where they are disassembled and sold as parts, Baran said.
"Right now the time to recover a stolen car is very lengthy, taking days or weeks, the LAPD's Hulet said. "But in Massachusetts they are averaging 90 minutes to recover a car.
"Also, looking at Massachusetts, we can project that we will have a 25 to 30% arrest rate," Hulet added--better than the 1% arrest rate Los Angeles has now.