Taking the Bait

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?"

Tangible Benefits

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.

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