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Two youths in a speeding stolen car were killed and two others were injured in 2015 when the driver ran a stop sign and collided with another car in Milwaukee's Washington Heights neighborhood, police said. (Milwaukee Police Department.) Two youths in a speeding stolen car were killed and two others were injured in 2015 when the driver ran a stop sign and collided with another car in Milwaukee's Washington Heights neighborhood, police said. (Milwaukee Police Department.)

Two youths in a speeding stolen car were killed and two others were injured in 2015 when the driver ran a stop sign and collided with another car in Milwaukee's Washington Heights neighborhood, police said. (Milwaukee Police Department.)

By D.L. Davis March 12, 2020

Yes, auto theft is up in most large Wisconsin counties, though down statewide

If Your Time is short

  • State Sen. Chris Kapenga, R-Delafield, says car thefts are increasing in 8 of the 10 most populous counties in Wisconsin.

  • A Wisconsin Department of Justice chart shows two of the top 10 counties, Milwaukee and Kenosha, had decreases in car thefts. 

  • Experts describe car theft as a “gateway crime.”

The issue of reckless driving has gained urgency as lawmakers, police and residents grapple with how to get a handle on increasing danger on neighborhood streets. 

One approach: Crack down on auto theft.

In Milwaukee and elsewhere, the police pursuit of stolen vehicles has led to accidents, including a Feb. 1, 2020 incident in Wauwatosa, when a stolen car being pursued by Milwaukee police crashed into a tree.

State Sen. Chris Kapenga, R-Delafield, introduced a bill to address auto theft that, among other things, increases penalties for reckless driving, fleeing an officer and vehicle theft. The measure won Senate approval Feb. 19, 2020 on a 19-14 vote and was sent to the Assembly. 

In a news release that day, Kapenga argued: "Reckless driving and car thefts have been a major issue not only in Milwaukee County but also across the state with car thefts increasing in 8 of the 10 most populous counties." 

Is Kapenga right?

The evidence

When asked for backup, Kapenga’s chief of staff Kyle Koenen pointed to the Wisconsin Department of Justice’s  Uniform Crime Reporting Database. 

Based on the database, here’s a look at the state’s 10 most populous counties and their motor vehicle theft counts in 2014 and 2018 -- a five-year period:

So two of the top 10 counties -- Milwaukee and Kenosha -- had decreases in car thefts, while eight had increases. 

At the same time, Kapenga is doing a bit of cherry-picking in terms of the data he is citing to boost support for his bill.

He describes auto theft as a statewide problem, but a look at statewide figures for motor vehicle thefts shows a 14.2% drop -- from 9,811 in 2014 to 8,416 in 2018. 

A gateway crime

Law enforcement officials and experts consider auto theft a "gateway" crime that is often tied to other criminal activity.

Here is a quote from the 2006 book "Forensic Investigation of Stolen-Recovered and Other Crime-Related Vehicles," which is described as a reference guide for auto theft investigators:

"Auto theft is often the first crime engaged in by juvenile offenders who go on to a career of committing other crimes. Stolen vehicles are often used in burglaries, armed robberies and other crimes."

In a 2018 interview with the website Pursuit Response, Chris McDonold, chair of a committee of the International Association of Chiefs of Police that focuses on vehicle crimes, said "97 percent of car thieves also face other serious charges."

"The first step of violent crime and high-impact crime begins with stolen vehicles," he said. "You need stolen vehicles for crimes like shootings, robberies, homicides, drug dealing and insurance fraud."

Our ruling

In seeking support for a bill he introduced, Kapenga said "car thefts (are) increasing in 8 of the 10 most populous counties." 

State data shows that, among the most populous counties, only Milwaukee and Kenosha saw a drop in a recent five-year period. But in choosing those counties to make his point, Kapenga is sidestepping the fact statewide data shows vehicle thefts are down.

Our definition of Mostly True is "the statement is accurate, but needs clarification or additional information."

That fits here.

Our Sources

The Wheeler Report News release, "Five Kapenga Bills Advance in State Senate," Feb. 19, 2020.

Email, Kyle Koenen, Sen. Chris Kapenga’s chief of staff, Feb. 24, 2020.

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Car deaths of black Wisconsinites surge because of Milwaukee’s reckless driving epidemic, report finds,"  Feb. 26, 2020

Wisconsin Department of Justice Uniform Crime Reporting Offense Data.

LoJack "Career criminals often start with auto theft," April 3, 2018.

LoJack "Stolen Vehicle Recovery System."

"Forensic Investigation of Stolen-Recovered and Other Crime-Related Vehicles,"  2006. 

Pursuit Response "Q&A: Why police agencies need to collect better data on vehicle crimes," May 3, 2018.

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel "Trial examines fatal car crash," August 25, 2016.

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel "Gangs turn to rolling drug houses, exploiting police chase policy," July 18, 2015. 

Fox 6 Now "2 arrested when driver of stolen vehicle struck tree in Wauwatosa, ending MPD pursuit," Feb. 2, 2020. 

International Association of Auto Theft Investigators IACP Committee Christopher McDonold.

Wisconsin State Legislature, Senate Bill 769, Jan. 30, 2020.

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More by D.L. Davis

Yes, auto theft is up in most large Wisconsin counties, though down statewide

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