Taking the Bait

The bait might be a Toyota, Honda or Acura. It looks like any other car, but it's not.

It's abandoned in a neighborhood plagued by a rash of car thefts. If and when - usually when - a thief decides to take the bait, that's when the fun begins.

When the thief drives away with the bait car, he may think he's gotten away because there might not be police in the area. But starting or tampering with the car activates a hidden GPS tracking system and alerts the police command center, which immediately begins monitoring the vehicle and alerts nearby police units.

"When an activation has occurred, the information is transmitted to the dispatcher. She gets units rolling, gives them a description of the car, the direction of travel and speed," explained Ben Gomez, a detective in the Office of Investigations for the Sacramento Calif., Police Department. "The issue here is increasing safety for the suspect and the officers. We don't want any pursuits."

Patrol units locate and stop the vehicle. If the occupant decides to flee in the car, the officer can instruct the dispatcher to shut down the vehicle, which will bring it to a gradual stop. If necessary, the dispatcher can also lock the bait car's doors, keeping the thief inside as officers approach.

Intangible Benefit

"The benefit to the public is not tangible because [the theft] never occurs, but it's huge," said Sgt. Matt Young of the Sacramento Police Department. "As everyone knows, some of these high-speed pursuits are extremely dangerous, and unfortunately, at times, result in death or injury to innocent people. That's the last thing we want to see, but we still have to go out and make arrests and find these guys out there committing these types of crimes. This program allows us to do that very efficiently."

In the early days - the bait car concept was introduced in the 1990s - the operation involved a regular car and police to physically monitor it. It was labor-intensive and took cops away from their normal patrols.

Police now maintain their usual patrols while the bait car and its technology are positioned in a strategic location. "The beauty of the bait car, the way we use it with the tracking system, is such that it uses minimal resources while deployed. At the time of theft when the activation occurs, dispatch receives that information, makes the broadcast and officers respond, locate the vehicle and make the arrest," Gomez said.

"We identify locations of either vehicle thefts or areas where the vehicles are being dumped after being stolen," Gomez said. "We'll use information from crime analysis; we'll take information from citizens groups. Many times the citizens groups will have more updated information than our crime analysis unit, so we'll use that."

Gomez was careful not to reveal all the bait car's bells and whistles as he talked about the tracking device, camera, GPS and other features. "We have the ability to lock the doors, we have the ability to kill the engine, and we have some other features I won't divulge," he said.

Police want the bad guys to be aware of the bait cars, but they don't want them to know many of the specifics about how the technology works, however. "The bad guys will start speculating, 'That may be a bait car. Let's get inside and tear it apart.' Or maybe they steal a car but in the process of stripping it, they put two and two together - and this has happened - and they realize this is where the stuff is."

The cars are nondescript and there are several, although the Police Department wouldn't disclose just how many. "We want the bad guys

Jim McKay, Justice and Public Safety Editor  |  Justice and Public Safety Editor