It was an hour before midnight on Arlene Drive when two young men found a car with the keys in the ignition and decided to drive it away.
“Do you see the police?” one of them asked his accomplice.
“If we even think we see the police, we’ll ditch it and run,” he responded.
What the thieves didn’t realize is that they tripped a silent alarm when they opened the doors. A hidden camera mounted on the dashboard was recording everything they did and said inside the car.
Columbia Police Detective Steve Brown replayed the grainy black-and-white video on a small portable DVD player, which showed the suspects searching the compartments and picked up the sound of persistent dinging that indicated a door was open.
The driver put the transmission in gear and turned the wheel, and the audio recorder picked up a clicking sound.
“He’s using his turn signals,” Brown explained. “What a great car thief.”
A GPS device monitored their movement and short time later, the engine stopped, turned off by remote control via satellite from the back at the police station.
At the same time, squad cars with flashing lights converged on the scene, and the thieves realized their mistake.
“This is a bait car!” one of them yelled.
The two juveniles caught in the act Aug. 26 were among 15 cases in which people have taken the “bait” and been arrested for auto theft or stealing from vehicles since the Columbia Police Department started its bait car program in January. Their cases are pending in juvenile court.
The program Brown administers also is used as a deterrent: by getting the word out about the bait car program, police hope to make potential criminals reconsider committing the crime in the first place.
They can also use the audio and video as leads for a suspect who might have broken into the bait car, stolen one of the “props” left inside, and then moved on to other cars.
The program was established due to a sharp increase in Columbia auto thefts in 2006-up to 225 that year from a previous annual average of 185.
Police Captain Brad Nelson said stolen vehicles in Columbia were primarily used for transportation, meaning the thief stole the car and then abandoned it somewhere closer to his destination.
There could be multiple reasons for the rise in auto theft last year, including a population increase that attracts a higher number of criminals, Nelson said. But to get an indication of the bait car program’s effectiveness, Nelson compares data from the first 10 months of last year to the first 10 months of this year.
Last year, as of Nov. 1, there had been 190 thefts. This year, during the same period, there have been 124. That’s a reduction of 35 percent.
In 2006, when the auto-theft rate was still on the rise, Nelson was searching for deterrents. He found baitcar.com. The Web site is run by IMPACT, a police auto-theft investigative team in British Columbia. Sgt. Gord Elias, media relations officer for IMPACT, said the site was intended for the public, police officers looking for auto-theft deterrents and for the criminals themselves. “We want auto thieves to see how foolish they look,” he said.
Nelson has hooked on the program and to pay for the system, he raised $28,000 in donations from local businesses. The 11 donors included State Farm, Shelter Insurance, The Insurance Group, Perry Chevrolet, Joe Machens Dealerships and Wal-Mart.
About $15,000 of the donated money was used for the equipment needed to outfit the bait cars, and about $7,500 was spent on training, installation and modifications to cars. The department spent $320 for a bait car billboard near the intersection of Stadium Boulevard and Old Highway 63, and spent $800 for bait car bumper stickers.
Nelson declined to say how many bait cars the Columbia Police Department uses.
The program may need extra funding later for maintenance of the cars or for more publicity, Nelson said. He doesn’t plan on making it a yearly budget item, because funding the program with donations has worked so far.
Brown said although the program is useful for the apprehension of criminals, “we’re interested in the deterrent factor as our primary objective.”
“I like to catch the bad guys, but that’s not what it’s about,” he said. “The longer I’m on this job, the more I get the prevention aspect of it [...] I interview offenders, and they’ll tell me they know about [the bait car program] and in some cases they’ve been hesitant. They’ve either moved on or didn’t do something because they knew it was out there.”
His goal, Brown said, was to “get apprehension up in order to get prevention up.”
They put up posters promoting the bait car program in the police department booking room, as well as in the Boone County jail and the University of Missouri Police Department booking room.
The publicity is common for bait car programs, so it’s not so surprising that several of the videos on baitcar.com actually contain conversations where the criminals talk about bait cars. In one called “Dumb & Dumber Get Pinched,” posted by the Integrated Municipal Provincial Auto Crime Team of British Columbia, the conversation goes like this:
Passenger: “You know what would be funny? If this was a bait car. They have them in Kelowna now, eh, you know that? [...] Seriously, you think we got a bait car? Wouldn’t it be crazy if they … threw it up on baitcar.com? We can look at ourselves getting’ pinched?”
The driver: “I don’t think it is. It’s like too teenager’d out. If you know what I mean. It is too teenager’d out.”
About three minutes later, they do, indeed, get pinched.
The point of the bait car is that it looks like every other car that’s around it.
“I try to have the cars in general fit the environment that I put them in,” said Brown. “I don’t want them to stand out.”
Brown said he spends time walking around downtown, looking at the cars. He sees valuables in cars and cars left unlocked:
“Two days ago, I saw a car still running with the keys in the ignition.”
Though the owner of the car probably only intended to leave the car for a moment, Brown said, it could still present an opportunity for auto theft. “The influence to stop auto theft predominantly lies with the citizen,” Brown said.
When deciding where to plant the bait cars, Brown said he doesn’t just look at the level of crime in a neighborhood. “Just because an area has an increased level of crime doesn’t mean there’s an increased risk of auto theft.” Instead, he will look at auto theft rates in a certain environment, and then look for “environments that are similar. What kind of opportunity does that [environment] represent?” said Brown. “I pay a little more attention to places that look like they might be victimized.”
Nelson said he doesn’t believe that defendants could argue they were victims of entrapment. The point of the bait car is to look just like the cars around it.
“Entrapment is the police or government enticing you to commit a crime that you had no intention of committing were it not for enticement or encouragement from the police or government,” he wrote in an e-mail. “No one makes suspects pick our bait cars to steal out of the thousands of vehicles that are available in Columbia; they (the suspects) were just so inclined.”
While the future of the program depends on funding, the police would like to see it expand. “Crime does not cease,” Nelson said, “there’s always someone out there willing to steal a car.”