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.
"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
to know that they're out there but at the same time, we don't want them to know how many and what they look like," Gomez said. Crime analysis reports show that Hondas, Toyotas, Acuras and trucks tend to be the vehicles most coveted by thieves, Gomez said. "Whatever is being stolen, we try to find a vehicle that's very similar. Why not give them what they're asking for?"
Crooks know of the concept of bait cars, but some thieves still can't stop themselves.
"Ideally we'd like to see our bait cars never get stolen because everyone's too afraid to break into a car, but criminals aren't the smartest people in the world," Young said. "There are always going to be people willing to commit these crimes in our city, but hopefully this is somewhat of a deterrent. If it's not enough of a deterrent, if they choose one of these vehicles, the consequences are going to be quite severe."
Anyone caught in a bait car is almost guaranteed to do some jail time. Sacramento has a 100 percent conviction rate with no injuries sustained during the city's bait car deployments.
"We have the ability to record both audio and video," Gomez said. "Additional features allow us to basically provide evidence at the court level that is nonarguable. How can you say 'that's not me' when, in fact, there's videotape right there in front of the jury of 12?"
Sacramento's vehicle theft statistics have remained fairly static, possibly because bait car use there is limited. Other police departments have seen great reductions in vehicle theft, however, and credited that to bait cars. The Minneapolis Police Department was one of the first to deploy the high-tech bait car in 2004 and saw its auto thefts decrease by 37 percent in the first six months.
Spending on bait car programs depends on an agency's resources and the depth to which it wants to develop the program. "It's like anything else," Young said. "A tracking system can be as basic as $1,000, depending on how sophisticated you want to be. There are systems out there for about $5,000 or $6,000. We fall in between - about $3,000 and $3,500."
The benefit of putting car thieves behind bars with little cost to the taxpayer is a no-brainer, he said. "Your front-end costs consist of setting up the equipment, but where the recovery occurs is the back end. You have no court time; you're not using taxpayer dollars on the back end.
"Some people estimate the cost of a trial at $8,000 to $10,000 a day. With this technology and this program, you're able to look at the evidence, and it's so overwhelming in terms of guilt they're much more inclined to plead out."
In fact, Young said there has never been a trial in Sacramento for theft of a bait car. "It's an open-and-shut case."
See video of Sacramento, Calif., Police Department's bait car.