By Mark E. Vogler
---- — LAWRENCE — At a time when Massachusetts was reputed to be the nation’s stolen car capital among states, then-Gov. Michael S. Dukakis launched his own crackdown on the $100-million-a-year business reaped by auto theft rings.
In November 1993, Dukakis created The Governor’s Auto Theft Strike Force, a 25-member unit designed to monitor high car-theft areas and track stolen cars to theft rings.
The original task force included five FBI agents, five state troopers, five Boston police officers, five metropolitan police officers and five Registry of Motor Vehicles inspectors.
Over nearly three decades since its inception, the strike force has been credited with saving millions of dollars through its recovery of stolen vehicles and busting of theft rings and chop shops which sell stolen car parts.
“They’ve done good work,” said Daniel Johnston, executive director of the Insurance Fraud Bureau of Massachusetts.
“Theft claims between 1987 and 2011 dropped 89 percent in Massachusetts. Theft is no longer the epidemic it once was in the state,” Johnston said.
“Theft claims in Lawrence have also dropped dramatically over the same period, about 85 percent, although there has been a slight uptick in thefts in 2010 and 2011 probably related to resource reallocations by the Lawrence Police department,” he said.
But despite the millions of dollars the strike force has saved in reduced auto theft claims, the state has decided to disband the unit now manned by state troopers for fiscal reasons.
“This was a move made to enhance patrol presence in the context of a tight budget situation,” State Police spokesman David Procopio said.
“The auto theft unit was certainly a valuable unit for us; unfortunately resources are finite, and we made a management decision that prioritized uniformed road patrols,” Procopio said.
“The Department closed its auto theft unit and reassigned the unit’s troopers, who formerly investigated property crimes, to uniformed patrol duties, where they will join our first-responder mission to protect the lives and safety of people who live in and travel through our state,” he said.
“This will enhance the patrol force that removes dangerous drivers from our roads, helps motorists involved in crashes, and responds to critical incidents in our cities, towns and neighborhoods. The decision ensures adequate staffing in the barracks in the most cost-effective manner.”
Other statewide State Police detective units will investigate auto theft, according to Procopio.
Johnston, of the Insurance Fraud Bureau, said it is too soon to tell whether the closing of the strike force units — particularly the three-man unit that’s been working in Lawrence — will lead to more stolen cars, while causing insurance premiums to soar.
“In all honesty, if the local police departments stay involved dealing with this on an ongoing basis, I wouldn’t expect to see a measurable change in the theft rate, or in premiums,” Johnston said.
But the shutdown of the strike force could have an impact in communities like Lawrence, where personnel cuts reduced or even eliminated the pressure on auto theft.
“The state police in general have been great supporters of the city of Lawrence,” Lawrence police Chief John Romero said.
“Especially in the last couple of years when we didn’t have an auto theft unit and we relied on them (the strike force),” the chief said.
When the Lawrence Police Department’s special operation unit was reinstated earlier this year, officers were assigned to the department’s own auto theft unit, which collaborated efforts with the strike force.
Chief Romero declined to speculate what kind of impact the elimination of the strike force would have on Lawrence.
“It’s not my place to comment on their decision,” Romero said of the strike force shutdown.
“But I appreciate their help as well as all the help we got from state police over the years. We have a very good relationship with them and they work very well in Lawrence. They have always been there for us when we needed them,” the chief said.
It took years before Lawrence police, aided by the strike force, put a dent in the city’s astronomical stolen car problem. A year before Dukakis created the strike force, the National Auto Theft Bureau ranked the city 10th in the nation on a per capita basis in stolen cars.
Lawrence had 1,046 motor vehicle thefts in 1982. Stolen vehicles continued to soar in the city through 1990, when the city reported its all-time high of 3,534 cars stolen.
Auto thefts in Lawrence continued to drop after that. The 597 stolen vehicles reported in the city in 2004 marked the first time in at least 25 years that stolen cars fell below 1,000-year. At the time, Romero credited the work of the auto insurance fraud task force as a major reason for the 51 percent drop in stolen cars
But auto thefts increased again when layoffs forced Chief Romero to shutdown the city’s auto insurance fraud task force several years ago. This year’s reactivation of special operations units has led to more city police involvement in stolen car investigations, but not as much as when the insurance fraud task force was active.
Now, the special operations unit is expected to fill the void created by the end of governor’s strike force.