Sheriff: 'We're doing all we can' to curb teen car theft epidemic

Pinellas Co. Sheriff's Office says the juvenile system needs to be fixed to stop 'revolving door'

PINELLAS COUNTY, Fla. -- Local law enforcement has repeatedly referred to the issue as an epidemic.

10News wanted to know if auto thefts and arrests in Tampa Bay had decreased since the creation of a regional auto theft task force in 2015 and the implementation of other programs to address a steady uptick in the crime.

The results are mixed.

Members of the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office and St. Petersburg and Tampa police departments pooled resources in August 2015 to address a drastic uptick in auto thefts seen that year. It was noted that instances were up more than 30 percent in Pinellas County, more than 20 percent in St. Pete, and nearly 50 percent in Tampa, compared with the first six months of the previous year.

Since then, auto theft reports and arrests have decreased in St. Petersburg but increased overall in Pinellas County and across the bay in Tampa.

In 2015, St. Petersburg police made 461 arrests for auto thefts. 316 — about 68 percent — were juveniles. In 2016, the number of auto theft arrests dropped to 286, with 171 – or about 59 percent – being juveniles.

Last year’s numbers reflect a 16-year low for auto thefts in the city, according to St. Pete police.

A large number of suspects are juveniles out on joyrides in stolen cars that are being used to commit other crimes.

It’s the exact scenario Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said played out early Sunday in Palm Harbor where a group of teens crashed a stolen car. Three of the teens, who police referred to as “prolific offenders,” were killed. Similarly, three teen girls were killed in March 2016 when deputies say they crashed a stolen car into a St. Pete pond while trying to evade law enforcement.

But while it might look like the situation is improving in places like St. Pete, Gualtieri said a better explanation might be that the activity has simply shifted into other areas of the county, evident by Sunday's crash. Gualtieri called it a “deadly game” teens are playing.

"We have seen some squeezing of the balloon in that auto thefts have been down in St. Pete and up in other places," he told reporters during a Monday press conference.

"We saw it during one portion last year where they were down significantly down in St. Pete but up something like 80 percent in Pinellas Park. The bottom line is this is a countywide problem and what we know is that 2017 is up over 2016.”

Gualtieri pointed to recent efforts by the auto task force, part of the Violent Crimes Task Force, and the county's Habitual Offender Monitoring Enforcement, or HOME unit, which puts teens with at least five felony arrests who are on probation under intense officer surveillance, as evidence of steps being taken in the right direction.

"We’ve added home case managers to try to engage the families and get them involved," he said.

But Gualtieri went on to say law enforcement can only do so much.

"Despite all these efforts, unfortunately, auto thefts are up in Pinellas County for the first half of 2017," he said, citing an increase in the first six months of 2017 compared to the prior year during the same time.

"Law enforcement cannot fix this; Parents, family members, caregivers need to step up and figure out why these kids are out at 3, 4 o’clock in the morning stealing cars," he said.

"We’re doing all we can, but we need help.”

Statistics across the bay in Tampa show similar year-to-year increases in auto theft.

In 2014, Tampa police made 124 auto theft arrests, 23 were juveniles. The number of arrests rose to 133 in 2015 – about 46 percent were in juveniles. Last year, Tampa police arrested 194 for auto thefts, half were juveniles.

© 2017 WTSP-TV


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