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How one city took on rising car thefts — and brought the numbers down

When it comes to curbing auto thefts, the St. Paul, Minn., police department has focused on education and prevention. Sgt. Mike Ernster, the department's public information officer, says enforcement is important, but "we won't be able to arrest our way out of this."
Stephen Maturen
Getty Images
When it comes to curbing auto thefts, the St. Paul, Minn., police department has focused on education and prevention. Sgt. Mike Ernster, the department's public information officer, says enforcement is important, but "we won't be able to arrest our way out of this."

In the past two years, car thefts have skyrocketed in many U.S. cities, driven by a trend targeting Kias and Hyundais.

In Chicago, 80 cars on average were stolen every day last year. In Minneapolis, a woman's car was reportedly targeted three times in six months. But just across the Mississippi River in St. Paul, Minn., a very different story is playing out.

Although the smaller Twin City also saw a surge, car thefts there have since fallen dramatically, and local officials say a focus on prevention and youth intervention likely has made the difference.

A viral video drove the surge

"We're dealing with a crime that has an obvious cause," says Jeff Asher, a crime analyst and co-founder of AH Datalytics. "And that's just rare to see."

Thefts began to balloon nationwide in the summer of 2022, after a TikTok video exposed a security vulnerability in certain models of Kia and Hyundai cars that made them easier to steal. Asher says the original video was up for only a few weeks, but that was enough time for it to spread.

"There's two things that can really change crime," says Ernesto Lopez, a research specialist at the Council on Criminal Justice (CCJ), a nonpartisan think tank. "Increased motivation and increased opportunity."

The video caused a major change in both, Lopez says. There was an increase in opportunity "because now the entire country essentially has the knowledge of how to steal a vehicle and to know the certain types of vehicles."

And there was an increase in motivation. The videos became a challenge, especially among teenagers, to steal cars and then upload their own videos to social media. Some people would even time themselves to show how fast they could do it.

Nationwide, auto thefts have more than doubled since 2019, according to newly released CCJ numbers looking at 34 cities. Last year alone, car thefts rose nearly 30%.

It has gotten so bad that 18 state attorneys general sent a letter to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration urging a recall of the affected cars. Kia and Hyundai settled a class action lawsuit brought by owners last year for $200 million, and it faces additional lawsuits from cities and insurers.

St. Paul also saw a spike in car thefts after the TikTok video went viral. But its numbers peaked shortly afterward.

In fact, the CCJ report found that from 2022 to 2023, car thefts there fell nearly 40% — the largest decline of any of the cities it examined.

Asher says there are signs that thefts in other cities also might have peaked. He recently looked at last year's car theft data in eight cities: Baltimore; Chicago; Detroit; Memphis, Tenn.; Milwaukee; New Orleans; Philadelphia; and Washington. "What we saw was obviously a huge surge in 2022, and it carried into 2023," Asher says. "But towards the end of 2023, we started to see that huge upward slope hit the top and start to come down."

For now, though, St. Paul remains an outlier.

A focus on prevention

Some of the decrease in St. Paul, Lopez says, might simply be a case of what goes up must come down.

But the city's mayor, Melvin Carter, says he thinks a focus on preventing thefts in the first place has been key, even if it's tough to pinpoint any single reason for the decline. "The truth is, there's not really a way that you can take credit for that because that person doesn't wake up and see their car in their driveway and go, 'Good job, Saint Paul Police Department,'" Carter says.

The police department has focused on teaching residents about things that could make them a target. On a recent day last month, St. Paul police officer Keng Her patrolled the city's east side on a special shift focused entirely on auto theft.

"When it's cold, like right now," Her says, "people tend to leave their cars on so that it's warm when they get inside. And you never know who's watching that might potentially target you."

Part of his job is to tell people not to do that, speaking with car owners to explain the risk of leaving cars unattended and handing out informational flyers to apartment managers.

The police department also did a targeted ad campaign in areas where its data showed high rates of vehicle theft. And it has provided Kia and Hyundai owners with steering wheel clubs, which make vehicles just about impossible to steer and thus a less appealing target.

"We won't be able to arrest our way out of this, so prevention and intervention play a big role," says Sgt. Mike Ernster, the police department's public information officer.

The focus on prevention may be strategic — in general, car thefts rarely lead to an arrest. Across the country, fewer than 1 in 10 auto thefts ends up resolved. St. Paul's clearance rate, which measures whether a crime led to an arrest or some other resolution, is even lower, hovering around 6% for the past three years, according to data from the state's Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.

The sheriff's office in Ramsey County, where St. Paul is located, has focused on more proactive police tactics, setting up a dedicated auto theft unit. Ramsey County's clearance rate rose from around 9% in 2021 to around 14% in 2022 and 2023, according to data from the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.

Clearance rates matter, Asher says, because one of the biggest deterrents to crime is "the swiftness and certainty of getting caught."

"From a deterrence standpoint, there's little that police can do other than say, 'Hey, we're going to catch whoever's doing this,'" Asher says. "But in reality, there's thousands upon thousands of auto thefts that happen each year in cities, and a couple hundred get solved."

Offering another path for young people

Ramsey County Attorney John Choi says county and city officials — police, judges, prosecutors, City Council members, the mayor and others — began to meet regularly to address auto thefts in 2021, when rates were already rising in St. Paul but well before the TikTok surge.

It became clear they needed to focus on youth intervention. Many of the people stealing cars are teenagers doing it for a joyride, and many do so over and over again, says St. Paul Police Chief Axel Henry.

"It's a very small percentage of our community that's stealing the majority of these cars," Henry says, noting that this demands a more nuanced approach to policing.

St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter (left) and Police Chief Axel Henry say focusing on preventing car thefts has played a major role in St. Paul's declining auto theft rate.
Shari L. Gross / Star Tribune via Getty Images
Star Tribune via Getty Images
St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter (left) and Police Chief Axel Henry say focusing on preventing car thefts has played a major role in St. Paul's declining auto theft rate.

"We're having a conversation with them, saying, 'Do you understand that this act that you thought was super low-level and somewhat harmless is a felony and caused a monstrous disruption for the people in the community?'" Henry says. "What we're saying is, 'You were in the car. What's going on with you? Why is this fun?'"

St. Paul has also focused on giving young people more positive outlets, offering things like free youth sports and after-school programming, as well as free Uber rides to school and to mental health appointments.

Carter, the mayor, says this isn't some shocking new approach to safety.

"I have children, and when it comes to keeping them safe, my first question is: How do I get the gates up above the stairway? How do I get the plastic plugs in the outlets?" Carter says. "When we love someone, that's how we approach public safety. This is about extrapolating that same approach to a whole city."

Ramsey County is also focusing on youth: It's the only county in Minnesota that has gotten grant money from the state's Department of Commerce specifically for auto theft youth intervention.

Its program has worked with around 100 young people, mostly boys between ages 10 and 17. Nearly all of them were sent to the program by probation officers, the Ramsey County Sheriff's Office and judges.

The staff members have taken kids to things like plays, basketball games and events organized by the city. They've even helped some of them find part-time jobs.

"It's really about embedding yourself into their lives and becoming a pillar or teammate," says staff member Yusef Davis. "You show them like, 'Look, you don't have to do dirt to survive. There's another path for you. You just have to consciously make the decision.' "

Every Wednesday night, the group meets at a community center with parents and a therapist.

One mom says a court recommended that her son attend after he got involved with a group of teenagers stealing cars. She didn't want to be named because she worried it would negatively affect her son, but she says the weekly commitment has made a big difference — even to her.

"It's helped me get resituated, like in a structure, a schedule," she told NPR. "Sometimes you just gotta start somewhere. This group has helped me stabilize myself."

She says you get kids on the right track by being an example of being on the right track.

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Meg Anderson
Meg Anderson is a reporter and editor on NPR's Investigations team. She reported the award-winning series Heat and Health in American Cities, which illustrated how low-income neighborhoods nationwide are often hotter in temperature than their wealthier counterparts. She also investigated the roots of a COVID-19 outbreak in a predominantly Black retirement home, and the failures of the Department of Justice to release at-risk prisoners to safer settings during the pandemic. She serves as a producer and editor for the investigations team, including on the Peabody Award-winning series Lost Mothers, which investigated the high rate of maternal mortality in the United States. She has also reported for NPR's politics and education desks, and for WAMU, the local Member station in Washington, D.C. Her roots are in the Midwest, where she graduated with a Master's degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.