While cruising the city streets, Officer Sean Richardson once bet his patrol partner $5 that the car they had just passed was stolen. Within 20 seconds, they had run a license plate check and Richardson was $5 richer.
"I just felt it," he said later. The driver of the stolen car "just gave me that look."
The two-year officer's gut feelings have served him well 29 times in the past year: He recentlywon the 10851 Award from the Southern California Automobile Club and the California Highway Patrol. (The state penal code label for a stolen car is 10851.) The award is given to police officers who recover at least 12 stolen cars in a 12-month period.
"I would like to think it is my skill," Richardson said. "But there is probably some luck involved."
Richardson's success rate is impressive given that he works in one of the smallest cities in the state. Of his 29 recoveries, 23 had been stolen, parked and abandoned, and six were "rolling recoveries."
Richardson has developed a technique that has earned him a reputation as a car thief's worst enemy. "I have what I call mind tricks," he said.
While out on patrol, he looks for American-made cars that are popular with thieves and easiest to steal. He will drive up next to the passenger window and look in at the ignition to see if it has been punched, and, at the same time, glance at the driver's expression.
Next, he'll drop back well behind the car and turn on his flashing lights. If the driver runs, it's most likely stolen. If the driver doesn't attempt to escape, Richardson will often take the next turn.
Richardson said an auto owner's best defense is a security system with a homing device. Most police cruisers can receive signals from such devices, which make it simple to locate a stolen car.
But there is no perfect defense, he said. "If a criminal wants your car, he will get it."