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Car Thefts Skyrocket In Johnson County In 2020, Setting A Record In Overland Park

Overland Park set a stolen car record in 2020. Many cities in Johnson County saw a spike last year near 40%. Police say too often people simply leave their keys or key fob in their cars.
Illustration by Carlos Moreno/KCUR 89.3
Overland Park set a stolen car record in 2020. Many cities in Johnson County saw a spike last year near 40%. Police say too often people simply leave their keys or key fob in their cars.

In some of Johnson County's biggest cities, the increase in the number of stolen vehicles from 2019 to 2020 was over 40%. Police remain unsure about the reason but think the dramatic increase may be tied to the pandemic and economic troubles.

When the police tell you not to warm up your car and leave it unattended, it's a good idea to listen because there is a pretty good chance someone is looking to steal it.

“We had the highest number of autos stolen in a single year ever,” Overland Park Police Chief Frank Donchez told KCUR.

In 2019 Overland Park had 310 stolen vehicles, police said. But in 2020 that statistic shot up to 525, a 42% jump.

“I know people don't want to hear, quite honestly, but people are lackadaisical in security," Donchez said. "They leave the car running and they go in somewhere or they warm it up and leave the garage door open.”

It is not just happening in Overland Park. In Lenexa, the number of stolen cars increased from 87 in 2019 to 159 last year. That's an increase of 87%.

Shawnee also saw a spike from 140 thefts in 2019 to 194 in 2020, a 39% jump.

“The vast majority are taken either running or with the key fob inside,” Shawnee Major Jim Baker said. His officers often find open garage doors. “We give a lot of effort to waking people up in the middle of the night telling them their garage door is open.”

Many thieves just walk down the street or through parking lots checking door handles. If it opens, it probably means the spare key fob is inside. They get in, start it up, and off they go.

The thieves will drive the car around for a week or two and then steal any valuables, like money, guns or expensive glasses.

But there could be a more dangerous reason someone steals your car. “You know, if you're going to go shoot somebody or rob something, they tend to steal vehicles to do that,” Chief Donchez said.

Police say many cars are stolen by individuals looking for a nice ride for a couple of weeks. But that's not always the case. There are a few that go to either coast and then are shipped overseas where a car title isn't needed.

There are also a few rings that specialize in stealing cars from dealers. Last September a gang of juveniles hit two car lots for multiple vehicles, according to Johnson County District Attorney Steve Howe.

Again, there is nothing sophisticated about these crimes. Police say the gang will break into the dealership and take keys out of the lockbox.

Those thefts helped drive up the stolen car numbers in the last half of 2020. Since their arrest, Howe suggests, the numbers are settling down a bit. “The biggest indicator that you’ve got the right people is that it stops,” Howe told KCUR.

Thefts in other cities

Most in law enforcement agree that people are a little more desperate because of the economic downturn caused by the pandemic. And with businesses and schools closed people also have more time on their hands and they might spend it committing crimes.

Stolen cars have become a huge problem across the country.

Three of the top ten cities for stolen vehicles in 2019 were in Kansas and Missouri,according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau.St. Joseph, Missouri, was ranked third on the list. Topeka was sixth, and Springfield rounded out the top 10.

In New York City auto thefts were up nearly 70% last year — and a staggering 106% during Thanksgiving week alone, The New York Post reported last month.

It is big problem in Texas as well. “We’re just seeing a massive increase in the numbers of thefts,” Lt. Tommy Hansen, chair of the Texas Motor Vehicle Crime Prevention Authority told a local TV station. “We’ve got anywhere from 10% to almost 40% increases in certain areas of the state of Texas.”

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