Detectives in Auto Theft Investigations

According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program, motor vehicle theft is defined as the theft or attempted theft of a motor vehicle, which can include not only automobiles, but also:

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The FBI reported that in the United States about 737,000 motor vehicle thefts took place in 2010 alone. These thefts resulted in a loss of more than $4.5 billion nationwide, or an average of $6,152 per vehicle.

The Scope of Auto Theft Investigations

It may appear that auto theft investigations involve little more than documenting stolen vehicles and attempting to locate and recover them. However, these criminal investigations units, which are usually organized in a police department’s Crimes against Property division, must be structured, efficient, and coordinated in order to combat this felony crime and the financial toll that it takes on motor vehicle owners.

The work of auto theft investigators begins with the collection and analysis of data. These criminal investigators must maintain expert documentation regarding auto thefts in the region, as it allows them to better understand and identify crime patterns and respond accordingly.

For example, many police departments have implemented systems that immediately updates officers on stolen vehicles, providing investigators with information they can search and filter through in order to monitor trends in a given area.

Another major focus of an auto theft investigations team is the organization of case assignments and the case management process. The detectives and officers of the unit are called upon to process incoming calls, clear unfounded incidents, and investigate legitimate motor vehicle thefts in an organized manner. For example, sorting through mounds of unfounded reports to identify a legitimate report wastes time.

Auto theft investigative units of police departments are therefore always searching for ways to ensure that the system of reporting and investigating is as efficient as possible.

Many times this work also includes creating and implementing media and public awareness campaigns and community/neighborhood partnerships and watch groups in order to curb auto theft.

Auto Theft Investigator Job Description

The mission of auto theft investigators involves:

  • Reducing auto theft through education and enforcement
  • Locating and recovering stolen vehicles
  • Investigating “chop shops” and career offenders
  • Creating partnerships with the community and other agencies to encourage a collaborative approach to combatting auto theft
  • Investigating hit-and-run cases
  • In departments located near international borders or ports, working with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection to prevent the import and export of stolen vehicles

In larger departments, it is quite common for auto theft investigations to be organized into a number of smaller units. For example, the Houston Police Department’s Auto Theft Division consists of a number of task-specific units:

  • Special Investigations: Responsible for reviewing all auto-theft related offense reports, conducting a preliminary interview with the complainant, and determining if the case will be forwarded to the Reactive Unit for additional investigation
  • Incoming Case Investigations (Reactive Squad): Responsible for conducting a thorough investigation of the offense, which often results in a criminal indictment or the recovery of the vehicle
  • Pro-Active Investigation Unit: Responsible for conducting overt and covert investigations of persons engaged in the theft of motor vehicles
  • Task Force: Responsible for conducting long-term investigations into organized theft rings; works with police departments throughout the U.S.
  • HACTF: A unit that conducts investigations related to salvage dealers, accessory shops, and those who attempt to export vehicles or parts through the Port of Houston

Training to Become an Auto Theft Investigator

As criminal investigators, auto theft investigators work first as police officers. Upon achieving experience as a police officer, and often times through the completion of a college degree in a major such as criminology, criminal justice, or crime scene investigations, individuals are then promoted to the department’s criminal investigations division in the auto theft unit.

Detectives engaged in auto theft investigations receive a good portion of their training through field work; however, many police departments have instituted comprehensive training programs as to ensure that investigators within this unit are equipped with the latest identification and investigation techniques available.

For example, the Texas Department of Public Safety Special Investigations Section provides auto theft investigation training, which includes topics such as:

  • All-terrain vehicle identification
  • Counterfeit documents
  • Salvage yard inspections
  • Clone vehicles
  • Internet resources for auto theft

The Illinois State Police Academy also offers a comprehensive program aimed at auto theft investigations for in-service police academy training, which includes study in:

  • The location of VINs and confidential VINs
  • The function of the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB)
  • How to detect a stolen vehicle
  • The importance of the interview process and documentation
  • The importance of recognizing, preserving, and respecting the crime scene
  • The motivation and methods behind insurance fraud
  • The resources available to the vehicle theft investigator

Other examples of specialized training for auto theft investigators include:

  • Specialized vehicle theft
  • Courtroom tactics
  • Vehicle theft photography
  • VIN restoration

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