Task force targets vehicle thefts

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After a rash of vehicle thefts in Columbia this year, a recently reformed task force is targeting automobile theft in Monroe and St. Clair counties.

Since the Columbia Police Department joined the Metro-East Auto Theft Task Force on Dec. 2, three vehicles stolen from Columbia in recent months have been recovered.

“I’m really happy,” Columbia Police Chief Jerry Paul said of those early results. 

One of just five task forces throughout the state of its kind, the group was originally formed in August 1992. 

The task force is privately funded by motorists through the Illinois Motor Vehicle Theft Prevention & Insurance Validation Council, which is a conglomerate of insurance companies that charges a small fee on insurance policies to pay for auto theft task forces and other initiatives. 

Although it is privately funded, the local task force was shut down in early 2015 during the state’s budget crisis because the funding is administered by the secretary of state’s office. 

Then, early last year, the process for re-forming the task forces started, so St. Clair County Sheriff Richard Watson applied for and received a grant for that purpose.

The task force, which started working again in recent weeks, will reapply every year for the grant. The task force’s director, Matt Jany of the St. Clair County Sheriff’s Department, said that will not be a problem. 

There are 10 members of the task force from area law enforcement agencies in municipalities including Columbia, Monroe County, St. Clair County, Millstadt, Freeburg, Caseyville and Fairview Heights. 

Steve Patton of the Columbia Police Department and Jason Ettling of the Monroe County Sheriff’s Department represent Monroe County on this task force. 

Monroe County Sheriff Neal Rohlfing said it only made sense for him to send a deputy to the task force, which is based in Belleville, given recent crime trends. 

“We’ve seen an increase in motor vehicle thefts in the northern part of the county, to include the city of Columbia,” he said. “There was a group targeting Monroe County from Jefferson County (Mo.). It’s a pretty well-organized group from what we’ve learned. Going at a problem from a task force, you’ll have 10 or 12 people who can work an investigation instead of one or two investigators.” 

Paul said Columbia has 14 cases of stolen vehicles so far this year, up from five at this point in 2018. 

The task force has a proven record of reducing thefts, with the council’s website saying vehicle thefts statewide have dropped by nearly 63 percent since the council  formed. 

In Columbia, Paul said the city would often see zero or only one vehicle theft a year when the task force was active and a CPD officer was on it. 

“I think it assisted us greatly when we had stolen car investigations,” Paul said. “This is something that will address the stolen vehicle problem.” 

Paul also predicted burglaries to motor vehicles will go down because those responsible for the recent vehicle thefts were often those who would also steal items from inside parked automobiles. 

Patton and Ettling, along with every member of the task force, will work full time on the task force. But municipalities do not pay that cost. 

“This grant fully funds the officers,” Jany explained. “Part of the grant is that when somebody gets into the program, the city has to replace that officer so you don’t lose an officer on the street at all.”

Municipalities do have to pay for the training and salary of that replacement officer, but, at least in Columbia, Paul said that is not an issue. 

“The city council has been 100 percent supportive of this,” he said. 

While it is working, Jany said the task force is waiting to get some equipment it has ordered before it is fully operational. 

Once that happens, Rohlfing said the results should only improve. 

“I anticipate to see more (vehicle recoveries),” he said. 

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