For over a decade, North American and UK law enforcements have been combating auto theft with a sting operation known as “bait cars.”
The tactic is simple: entice a thief with a vehicle – by including alluring items inside such as money, purse, technology, etc. – and get them to break in and ride off. After the thief drives away with the vehicle, the police would trigger a kill switch and lock the doors, stopping the vehicle and trapping the thief inside. Then, by using a GPS system aboard the bait car, the police track down the car and arrest the criminal.
While the initiative has drawn attention to car theft and even presented the act as entertainment in American reality television series such as Bait Car and Jacked: Auto Theft Task Force, the jury is still out on how effective this practice really is.
Criticism has also surfaced over the years, putting into question the ethics of bait cars. Can baiting people to steal cars with enticing products within be considered entrapment?
While it may seem like a good idea to catch the bad guys, it’s fair to ask – do bait cars really work?
Have Crime Rates Dropped?
The best indicator of the value bait cars can be found in Surrey, British Columbia – a city that was once pronounced the car theft capital of North America. After bait cars were launched in 2003, the program has successfully reduced the auto theft by 71 per cent in Surrey. The rest of the province has seen improvements too, thanks to bait cars. In the past 10 years, BC has decreased the number of stolen cars by 52 per cent.
On average, 500 cars would be stolen every year; now the number is around 180. If we look strictly at the numbers, bait cars work.
The concept of planting of a commonly stolen item in vehicles came around in 2012, when the police noticed a small increase in auto theft. Smartphones, laptops, credit cards, ID and sound equipment became additional baits for criminals. Although it has done exceptionally well in reducing car theft, thieves are starting to recognize that bait cars are everywhere and are learning to adapt to their new intolerant environment.
Has the Program Saved Money?
Surrey and the rest of BC, in the past five years, have seen approximately $40 million in savings for drivers. One beneficial by-product of bait cars is that car insurance has also decreased. ICBC’s optional insurance premiums have grown lower by a total of 17 per cent in the last four to five years.
BC Solicitor General Kash Heed informs those thinking of stealing a car that there is now an increase in bait car fleets, in addition to upgrades that include new audio-video technology, response helicopters and dog teams.
“For those who think they can outrun a helicopter, they can’t,” says Heed. “Those who think they can outrun a German shepherd, they shouldn’t.”
Clearly, the police thinks the automotive honey traps are worth the money.
Is It Entrapment?
Here is where the lines blur. While it’s clear that arresting criminals for stealing vehicles is okay, luring them in through baiting tactics may be considered a crime itself. Entrapment is the coercive or manipulative act performed by law enforcement, resulting in a citizen committing a crime. Two wrongs don’t make a right.
In New York 2010, the police department’s bait car program received some negative press after Deirdre Myers, a single mother with her 15-year-old daughter and no criminal record, was arrested for walking up to a bait car. She was exonerated, but it’s safe to say that the humiliation and embarrassment, in addition to the shattered confidence in the bait car system felt by Myers, will take a long time to mend.
Numerous similar scenarios have taken place all across the United States, but the law simply chalks those up as isolated unlucky incidents. The police are claiming that they are not setting up normal everyday people – they are trying to arrest criminals, which is where the line is drawn again.
However, while some may consider bait cars entrapment, the law system does not, even though they provide thieves with an opportunity to steal the vehicle before the arrest.
In the end of the day, it’s all about protecting our vehicle. As long as we don’t drive away with someone else’s car, we really have nothing to worry about – except perhaps losing a parking spot the bait car may take up during the shopping season.